When will U of I's saliva test see wider rollout?

  • Faculty, staff and students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are required to take free, on-campus COVID-19 tests twice a week.

    Faculty, staff and students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are required to take free, on-campus COVID-19 tests twice a week. Courtesy of the University of Illinois

 
 
Updated 9/4/2020 9:47 AM

When the Illinois Department of Public Health announced the state's daily COVID-19 testing data Monday, something odd was tucked in among the county figures.

It showed that of the 47,379 tests results returned that day, a full one-third of them -- 15,714 results -- came from Champaign County, which is home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an FDA-approved COVID-19 testing program that could potentially turn the tide in the fight against the virus.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're routinely running 10,000 tests a day," said Marty Burke, a chemistry professor and lead researcher on the University of Illinois' COVID-19 saliva test project. "And you're getting the results back in hours, not days."

Fighting a war

The tests work much faster and are cheaper than the nasal swabs that are more commonly used. By getting the results faster, the spread of the virus can be controlled better, Burke said.

"We want to turn testing into a weapon to get rid of this because the whole goal isn't to monitor the disease, but to eradicate it," he said. "The sooner we know of a case, there's less chance for that person to infect others."

Gov. J.B. Pritzker touted this breakthrough test more than two weeks ago and announced plans to make it widespread throughout Illinois in the coming months.

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But why does it take so long to implement if it's so effective?

Locations, personnel and equipment are the short answers. Each lab that is set up to perform saliva testing needs to be certified by the FDA.

Not only does the certification process take time, but converting that space and finding the personnel to lead and work in the lab is also time-consuming. Burke and his research team converted the university's veterinarian lab and relied heavily on campus volunteers to staff the testing sites.

And finally, while saliva testing doesn't use as much equipment as nasal swabs, the equipment needed for the labs is still in short supply.

"It's kind of a bit of a race for which one of the locations can pull all the things together first," said Ron Watkins, associate dean of the University of Illinois' Gies College of Business and managing director of Shield Illinois. "The shortest amount of time you could possibly go is really an eight-week time frame, but it could take as much as 16 weeks to 20 weeks on the longer end."

Shield Illinois is responsible for deploying the university's saliva test capabilities throughout the state.

"Our hope is that we can have the first tests coming out of labs in October," Watkins said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Dealing with outcomes

In the meantime, students, faculty and staff on the campus, roughly 55,000 people, are required to get tested twice a week by spitting into a cup.

"Dribble," Burke corrected. "We say dribble, not spit. Because spitting can aerosolize."

Initially, this constant testing helped drive the county's infection rate down from 1.5% at the beginning of July, when the saliva tests began, to as low as 0.3% by mid-August. But in the past few weeks, the campus has seen cases begin to rise again. The seven-day average infection rate for the county by Thursday was 0.9%, with 100 new cases diagnosed that day for the second time in a week.

"Over these past few days, the irresponsible actions of a small number of students have created the very real possibility of ending an in-person semester for all of us," University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones wrote in a mass email sent Wednesday. "Their poor choices have led to a concerning and rapid increase in the number of new undergraduate COVID-19 positive cases."

Administrators threatened discipline for not complying with COVID-19 safety policies. However, some have been critical of the university's threats, arguing that an uptick in cases was inevitable with in-person attendance during a pandemic.

The university's testing figures are also part of the state's daily COVID-19 reports. Champaign County is averaging 6,883 tests a day over the past week. The sheer volume of tests from Champaign County has artificially decreased the state's infection rate since so many people on the campus are getting tested and retested weekly.

The state's daily average infection rate over the past week is 4.4%. But when data from Champaign County is eliminated, the average infection rate becomes 5.2%.

"The data is the data," Burke argued. "We need to get the state and the rest of the country to as much as we are testing."

Why it works

Burke and the state health department also stand by the results of the saliva tests. Despite the number of tests performed, the resulting lower case counts don't match what other counties have seen with traditional swab testing.

"We were fortunate to be in a position where our starting positivity rate was already low," Burke said.

State health officials said the confidence they have in the test stems from the FDA emergency approval of the testing protocols.

Burke also explained that when testing the validity of the saliva test initially, researchers at the university did comparative nasal swabs to rule out false positives and negatives.

Additionally, there's the science part that makes them even more confident of the test's accuracy.

"The virus makes very unique molecules, and we are looking for three of them," Burke explained. "The chances of the human body making all three of these molecules is infinitesimally small. And when we see a positive, we run it again, just to be sure."

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