At the end of October, Utah’s COVID-19 cases were high. Two of the nation’s top public health officials visited the University of Utah to discuss improved testing for the campus community. In the subsequent two months through an enormous effort, the U has developed new testing capability so that all staff, students and faculty can take highly accurate saliva tests without exhibiting symptoms. This asymptomatic testing, called surveillance testing, aims to catch the people who feel well but have the virus, and are unknowingly spreading the disease.
Anyone with a UID can get tested as frequently as once per week, Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday from 8:00 a.m. There are now two testing sites where anyone with a UID can register to get tested: The A. Ray Olpin Union building and the Officers Club.
The U’s existing infrastructure facilitated the speed to which the surveillance system came together. “When this started, Vice President for Research Andy Weyrich called to ask if any of our core labs had the capacity to do testing,” said John Phillips, associate dean of research and infrastructure for the School of Medicine and director of the Health Science Center (HSC) Core facilities. “I immediately thought of the sequencing core.”
The HSC Sequencing Core tweaked its usual work of sequencing genetic material for research to detect the genetic material of the virus. The Sequencing Core is one of 17 HSC-funded Core facilities that provide specialized technology and expert staff for scientists to utilize for research and data collection.
“We developed this surveilling testing system in record time. It was tremendous,” said Andrew Weyrich, Vice President for Research. “We have this phenomenal infrastructure in the Core facilities so that we were poised to re-tool our workflow rapidly, and we were able to make it efficient with high impact.”
Cameron Wright, program manager for campus COVID-19 testing, led IT teams from the Core labs, UIT, and EDW, who worked non-stop to implement a streamlined process for collecting and communicating test results in as early as four hours. To make testing centers run safely and efficiently, Wright deployed volunteers from the Hinckley Institute Hope Corp, a student intern organization that has been tasked with helping Utah navigate COVID-19. From entry to exit, the entire testing process takes approximately five minutes.
“If you have some kind of on-campus activity, we’re strongly encouraging getting tested. This is part of the obligation to make sure our campus community has some level of in-person engagement,” said Wright. “This is part of the work that we can tangibly do to make that happen.”
How it works
Pre-pandemic, scientists would use the HSC Sequencing Core to sequence and quantitate whatever gene they’re studying. The core has sophisticated machines that run polymerase chain reactions (PCR), a technique that makes the millions of copies of specific gene segments necessary to do any kind of molecular analyses.
“They do that every day—but now, rather than looking for a gene of interest, they’re looking for COVID-19,” Phillips said.
The HSC Core utilized the TaqCheck Assay, a new COVID-19 PCR kit from Thermo Fischer Scientific that speeds up processing time by skipping a step in most COVID-19 PCR tests—extracting RNA. Richard Orlandi, chief medical officer of ambulatory care at U of U Health, sent Phillips duplicate saliva COVID-19 samples from U of U Health testing clinics to verify that the TaqCheck Assay was accurate. It was.
First, someone spits into a tube with a barcode. The testing center links the tube with the person’s uNID, and sends it to the lab. The lab heats the saliva sample to just below boiling temperature for 30 minutes to breakdown anything that might destroy nucleic acid. Nucleic acid is the type of molecule that makes up the DNA and RNA of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The PCR machine amplifies two different genes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, when present, and a positive control found in the saliva of all individuals to ensure the test sample was valid.
After a 45-minute PCR run the results are uploaded to the reporting system designed by the talented IT group. The system automatically sends the results through an encrypted email via the person’s Umail account. The results come in as early as a few hours and no later than 24 hours. If the result is “detected,” the email will include instructions to verify confirm positivity through diagnostic testing at ARUP, as well as instructions for self-isolating. If ”not detected,” the email will remind each person to continue to wear face coverings, and social distancing. Widespread testing is essential to limiting COVID-19 transmission.
“The Health Science Core is achieving recognition around the state and, certainly across campus, in standing up very efficient, effective testing that has now been so widespread across our campus,” said President Ruth Watkins.
Register for your asymptomatic test here.