Implementing surveillance testing in Higher Education

16th October 2020

As PM Boris Johnson reiterated when he addressed the House of Commons on Monday 12th October, the government is adamant in its desire to avoid a second national lockdown, and is determined for schools and universities to remain open, believing that the consequences of not doing so outweigh the immediate risk. However, as the R number continues to rise within the UK and the number of patients being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 reaches higher levels than those seen in April, how can universities remain open and operate safely? 

The answer is the implementation of a university based surveillance testing programme. As recent news coverage has shown, the returning of students to university has unsurprisingly been marked by an increase in coronavirus cases and the subsequent forced isolation of many students within their residences. While universities have implemented social distancing measures throughout campuses and dramatically reduced in-person teaching, it is not enough to ensure the safe running of universities in the long term. If we are going to live alongside COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, universities need to be able to systematically and routinely test their students and staff for coronavirus. 

Such a proposal may sound outlandish considering the UK’s current testing circumstances and its inability to cope with present demand, however, as Ryan Wain from the Tony Blair Institute has shown, such a strategy has been successfully implemented to great effect by the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois currently tests its fifty thousand staff and students on average three times a week and effectively communicates results within hours, instructing those who need to isolate to do so. Such a strategy could be transferred to UK universities – and would enable students to safely navigate uni life while avoiding the need for the closing of campuses. 

The key to implementing high frequency testing in universities is the utilisation of regular saliva based PCR testing. Saliva based tests are preferable as they do not require a healthcare professional to administer the test and are non-invasive. Where possible, we believe that using universities’ existing lab capacity (providing sufficient biohazard safety measures are in place) will speed up the turnaround time to results and  bring costs down. Coupled with an effective system of communication – this would enable universities to identify those currently infected, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, which is of critical importance and will greatly aid our ability to significantly combat this virus within universities. Over the long term and as further validation is provided, we believe that universities should turn to rapid antigen testing in order to implement affordable testing with fast results turnaround. 

By utilising university based lab facilities and calling on the expertise and networks of testing providers such as TFA, the mass testing of university students and staff is possible and would enable the UK to keep such institutions open and enable students to regain some semblance of normalcy.