When students return to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall, they'll likely be tested for COVID-19 with a new saliva test developed by university researchers.
In a pre-print version of research manuscript, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, a UIUC research team proposes using saliva to test for COVID-19, rather than the more invasive nasal swab. The manuscript describes how the team is bypassing the RNA extraction step in testing, making it faster and less susceptible to shortages of scarce testing materials.
The university will "resume on-campus instruction for the Fall 2020 semester in a manner modified to address the ongoing pandemic concerns," according to a statement released Thursday. "This semester will consist of a blend of in-person and remote instruction."
School researchers were looking for a way to mass-produce a test to accommodate the more than 47,000 students who would be returning to campus.
Saliva is "easy to collect and therefore easy to scale," associate dean of research for UIUC's Carle Illinois College of Medicine Martin Burke said during a June 16 online briefing by the school.
The university plans to pursue a FDA Emergency Use Authorization to enable the use of the test by other labs. However, FDA approval is not needed for the university's Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)-certified laboratory, according to an emailed statement Friday. The university will move beyond the pilot study stage when it receives a CLIA-registration number, which is anticipated within two weeks, the statement said.
"This saliva-based process is operationally simple, utilizes readily available materials, and can be easily implemented by existing testing sites, thus allowing for high-throughput, rapid, and repeat testing of large populations," UIUC researchers wrote.
The school's reopening plans call for 20 testing stations around campus to collect saliva samples, according to the statement. Saliva sample testing will be part of the standard entry and orientation for students returning to campus.
Researchers at the University of Chicago are also studying saliva testing using another detection technique, but widespread use of the testing is still some time off.
UChicago Medicine is testing droplet-digital PCR, ddPCR, a process which amplifies the genetic signal of a sample by separating a sample into "thousands and thousands of droplets," said Asst. Prof. Evgeny Izumchenko, a University of Chicago Medicine geneticist.
The system is being used at the University of Chicago Medical Center on a volunteer basis. The researchers say this saliva testing is both less invasive and provides a more precise measurement of a COVID-19-positive patient's viral load.
However, testing by ddPCR is not yet fully automated testing, so scientists have to carry out some steps by hand, Izumchenko said. He and his fellow team members are working on approaches to make the process semi-automated or fully automated, but this work could take anywhere from two months to a year.
Before that, the test can't be widely used, but will be used selectively in clinical settings, Izumchenko said.
The article was originally published in Crain's Chicago Business.