One out of 50 COVID-19 tests in the U.S. are processed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here's how its researchers are tracking the spread of the coronavirus on campus, and how the University became a model of testing for other flagship universities.
This University Monitors COVID-19 Through Saliva Testing
Published: January 21, 2020
Jahaira Bustos: You pretty much just spit into this tube. It fills up so slowly. It takes maybe like 2, 3 minutes tops and you put it in a container and you get your results in like 12 hours.
Narrator: The University of Illinois is trying to control the speed of the COVID-19 by collecting... spit.
Chris Marsicano: Illinois’ testing is I mean, that has been one of the major innovations of our time.
Marsicano: As far as large public universities have gone, Illinois has been able to keep its case count lower than a lot of places that we would expect it to sort of follow -the University of Georgia or the University of Texas, that kind of thing
Narrator: The U of I implemented a mandatory screening program that tests students fro the coronavirus two or three times a week. It's one of the largest programs in the country using a saliva-based test created in-house and one of the only mandating frequent testing.
Sam Owusu: And that's fairly, fairly uncommon among universities. Most universities are opting for only symptomatic testing. So testing students when they start to exhibit symptoms
Marsicano: That's a massive issue because of how we know this virus spreads.Most people in that age group in the eighteen to twenty five year old age group who get covid-19 will be asymptomatic. So if you're testing only symptomatic people, you're not going to catch the disease as it spreads now. [00:37:35][14.0]
Narrator: U of I build an entire system for tracking and testing campus-goers centered around a coronavirus test that samples the amount of virus in saliva.
Students need proof of recent negative test results to gain access to campus buildings.
Paul Hergenrother: It says granted and that means I've had a recent negative test. So for the undergrads, if you haven't had a negative test in three days it will say denied and they can't get into a building.
Narrator: If students do test positive, they get a push notification on the app and are put into isolation either in a dorm or a hotel room.
Becky Smith: We have had students with symptoms, but we have not had a student hospitalized, and of course that means there have been no student deaths.
Narrator: While the testing is central to the university's strategy, building a new culture on campus has been a large part of the effort to control the spread of the virus.
Owusu: Socialization and culture are really important when it comes to this virus. Culturally, it's hard for students to buy into to testing when they know they have to go get get get their brain checked every every week or so. They simply planned earlier and better than I would say everyone else
Narrator: In April, researchers started developing a test that didn't require the supplies needed for a nasal test—things like swabs and solutions that were hard to find earlier this year due to a national shortage.
Hergenrother: If you heat the saliva at ninety five degrees C for 30 minutes, it does a few really, really important things. One is that it inactivates the virus.Secondly, it enables the genetic material to be accessible. And thirdly, it activates the components in saliva that are inhibitory to PCR.
Narrator: PCR—or polymerase chain reaction—is a method researchers use to detect the coronavirus by looking for the virus' genetic material, RNA.
Scientist found that heating up the samples prepares it for the PCR process without all of the reagents needed for the nasal swab. With the addition of one buffer, the sample is ready for PCR.
Martin Burke: So we don't need a swab. We don't need the viral transport medium and we don't need the RNA isolation kit. All of those are gone. And so we don't have any of those supply chain bottlenecks. It's also why our test is so cheap, because we don't have to pay for those things. So it's also why it's so fast
Narrator: The test also gives information about viral load, of how much of the virus is in a sample. That information, coupled with a record of recent tests, can be key in identifying how long someone has been infected.
Burke: We actually get a quantitative readout of how many copies of the virus per milliliter of your saliva. And so we've been using that CT value. It's called the cycle threshold, which is a direct readout of the concentration of the virus to help make decisions.
If you've got 15 negatives in a row and now all of a sudden they just flip positive, that means you caught them on the way up. So it's context dependent
Narrator: Testing everyone who comes on campus multiple times a week is no small undertaking. Their labs run around the clock—processing up to as much as 10,000 samples a day.
Chris Marsicano: One in 50 covid-19 tests in America happens at the University of Illinois every day. I want to be very clear here, not one in 50 tests on college campuses in America, one in 50 tests in America happens at the University of Illinois.
Narrator: While the testing has been key to controlling the spread of the virus, it hasn't stopped the spread. When students returned to campus in the fall, there were two big spikes in cases—one researchers predicted... the other, an unwelcome surprise.
Burke: We modeled that seven to eight thousand students would go to parties two or three times per week.And we modeled that they might not wear their masks all the time at their party, so we knew this was going to be a challenge and we still predicted we'd be in really good shape, but we didn't model, however, was that students who knew they were positive would still go to a party or if they knew they were positive, they would host a party in their house. And that's what got us. That's what surprised us.
Narrator: County contract tracers have found that most cases in undergrads stem from either social gatherings, or from where they live.
Becky Smith: There is no evidence of infection in class, there is no clusters in class group. It’s their social networks and where they live.
Narrator: And university researchers don't think that infections among the student population are spreading to faculty and staff, or to the community around campus.
Smith: The student group tends to infect amongst themselves. And with the faculty and staff what we see is cases acquired in the community.
Narrator: Now as cases rise across the U.S., researchers are noticing an uptick on campus too... adding to growing concern about the holidays.
Burke: If you look at the modeling data, it says it's like you take all the marbles, shake them up, and then everybody mixes and then you bring everybody back. And the chances are it's going to be a very challenging event. It's almost like what we saw when they all came back the first time. They bring back a lot of cases with them. So our hope was that there were a lot of them would just choose to stay home. That said, we've been doing lots of surveys and turns out a lot of them are coming back.
I think we all have to recognize we're in for a really tough next three months or so.
Produced by: Emily Zendt
Production Assistance: Christina Monnen
Additional footage: Emma Stone
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020