The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign announced in June that when students, faculty, and staff returned to campus for the fall semester, every individual would undergo rapid saliva testing for COVID-19 twice a week in order to swiftly quell any outbreaks. To process the 20,000 tests conducted each day, the university repurposed its veterinary lab. To take the test, a person only needs to spit into a tube, then the sample is heated for 30 minutes and scientists add chemical reagents to prepare the sample for RT-qPCR. Each test costs $10. The school budgeted $6 million for startup costs and up to $10 million for testing throughout the semester.
The initiative is supported by a cell phone app that immediately notifies individuals of their test results and can alert them if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Those who test positive are quarantined. Now, that plan is being put in place as school is getting underway.
The Scientist spoke with Martin Burke, a chemist at the university who helped develop the saliva test, about how the initiative has gone so far.
The Scientist: First, can you tell me about the tests that you developed that you’re using to do this mass testing?
Martin Burke: Sure. So back in April, we launched a project to try to figure out how to stand up and strategically deploy standard testing as part of the university’s effort to reopen as safely as possible. And we quickly realized that the standard nasal swab viral transfer media RNA isolation was not going to be sufficient. [It would be] too slow, too expensive, and have too many supply chain bottlenecks. So I teamed up with my colleague Paul Hergenrother [another chemist at the university] and launched kind of a Manhattan Project–style effort to find a way to test cheaper, faster, and without the supply chain bottlenecks.
Paul led an extraordinary team of students and postdocs and a bunch of us together and found we could skip the RNA isolation step, go directly from saliva to PCR, and thereby get rid of most of the supply chain bottlenecks, dramatically increase the speed, and reduce the cost. This is the backbone of the programs.
TS: Can you describe a little bit about the program itself, how it’s set up?
MB: The testing itself is not a silver bullet—we wrap around it frontier data science to figure out who to test and how frequently to repeat it. And then on the backend [we have] rapid communication to a new app that was created for the phone by Bill Sullivan and his team so that you get your results immediately pushed straight to your phone in a HIPAA-complaint and fully privacy-protected manner as well as digital exposure notifications. So between all of that is this test. And we had to get to 20,000 tests per day in order to be able to meet the demand of twice per week for 60,000 people. I’m very excited to tell you we achieved that.
TS: And what have you seen so far?
MB: We ran a pilot over the summer with all the student staff who were here. And actually in mid-July, we had a spike. There was a social event that led to an increase. But then by just having frequent testing across the summer, over the next two weeks, we watched it fall down so I think that was our first indication that this really had a shot.
We knew we were going to get a bump when all the students came back. We got it, just as we predicted with the modeling. And I’m so excited to tell you, we’re watching it fall as we do the frequent repeat testing on the population right now. We really hope that this is going to continue to show a way which we could get society reopened.
TS: Now that everybody’s back, how are they responding to the strategy?
MB: So far, we’ve seen a remarkable level of compliance. The goal, of course, is to help people get safely isolated, help people get safely quarantined. A lot of them don’t mind it so much because they get free food and lots of support and they get a care package. We don’t want to make it feel like they’ve done something wrong, we just want to make everyone feel safe and protected.
We talk to business owners to try to create a true understanding of how important and exciting this is, an opportunity to invest in staying open. So, for example, the community voluntarily imposed a shutdown of indoor bars and restaurants for a two- to three-week period as the students came back to try to avoid superspreader events.
I was really excited to see this driving home the other night [as I] passed a fraternity house. The guys had brought out their ping pong table, out on the front yard with their masks on playing ping pong. And I’ll tell you, that is when I knew we were going to make it.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.