University of Denver expects to triple COVID-19 testing for winter term

As the University of Denver community returns for the start of a new term, it will also be faced with a new COVID-19 testing program aimed at better protecting everyone on campus. The new program applies to all students, faculty and staff who live, work and / or take courses on campus.

DU conducted a comprehensive college and university performance review during the fall semester. The results indicated that eight institutions were operating with in-person learning with case counts and positivity rates equal to or lower than rates of DU in surrounding communities where the prevalence of COVID-19 was equal to or greater than that of Denver. Although DU performed 29,833 nasal swab RT-PCR tests, each of the eight facilities performed significantly more tests. To handle the higher positivity conditions expected in the winter term, DU will dramatically increase the frequency of testing for those who live and work on campus.

Achievement of the target of increased testing will be achieved through the introduction of RT-PCR saliva testing which will be performed on campus.

“We’ve been preparing for this since July,” says Corinne Lengsfeld, senior vice-president for research and higher education and one of the leaders of DU’s COVID response team.

When the University of Denver embarked on in-person learning last summer, Lengsfeld began working with Sarah Watamura, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, and Phillip Danielson, professor of molecular biology in the College of Sciences. natural and mathematical, on a faster and more profitable solution which allows a greater volume of tests. The goal was to prepare it for the winter months, when the prevalence of COVID-19 would be higher. This led to the creation of DU’s Spit Lab.

Danielson’s forensic lab has been turned into a coronavirus testing facility. Researchers began by examining samples using a method called “directly from saliva”. The saliva sample is placed directly into a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and within hours you know the results of the test. However, when they started working with real-world samples – some containing food and blood scraps – many of the samples were faulty, meaning they couldn’t recover enough viral RNA that could then be tested.

Danielson decided it was time to switch to a different method. The team began using an extraction-based approach in which the saliva goes through an automated process that neutralizes chemicals that attack RNA in saliva. They were now able to separate the “waste” from the RNA in the samples. The only thing left to do was compare their results with nasal swab tests from the DU Care Pod run by the Jewish National Hospital (NJH). The results were a sensitivity rate of 96.7% on positive tests and a specificity rate of 100% on negative tests.

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“It’s great to have a method on hand that we know works,” says Danielson. “There are so many methods that work so well in the lab with blank samples, then you try to adapt them to the real world and it’s an epic failure. The real world can sometimes be a very different creature from the laboratory.

The final step was to expand the process to handle the volume of testing that would be required for the DU campus. Three analysts and a senior scientist have been hired, and dozens of students are involved in sample collection and analysis. The equipment purchased allows them to process 384 samples every three hours. The goal is to perform 1,000 saliva tests per day, in addition to the 500 nasal tests performed daily by the NJH.

“This testing strategy gives us the ability to have control over our campus, reduce our positivity and maintain it no matter what is going on around us,” Lengsfeld says. “It sets us up for success no matter what happens in our surrounding communities. “

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Nasal and saliva testing will be combined with ongoing antigen testing for student-athletes and analysis of sewage samples from the six residences three times a week. By the end of the winter term, the University expects to have tripled the number of tests performed in the fall. The frequency and type of testing for each individual will vary depending on their housing situation and their frequency on campus.

Although a vaccine has brought hope to end the pandemic, it will be nearly six months before many people on campus are vaccinated and the community is granted herd immunity. It is also possible that a certain level of testing will be required next fall.

“It’s really important that we stick with what worked for us in the fall and then add on top of that,” Lengsfeld said. “It’s great that we have a vaccine and the end is in sight, but let’s make sure we keep everyone safe and alive until that end is achieved.”


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