UC Berkeley researchers provide blueprint for campus COVID-19 surveillance testing

Photo of saliva-based sars-CoV-2 surveillance testing program
Roxanne Makasdjian, Berkeley News/Courtesy
A team of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory affiliates led the Innovative Genomics Institute to conduct a study on campus. The study was meant to develop Free Asymptomatic Saliva Testing.

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As it became clear that COVID-19 was here to stay, the Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, entered summer 2020 with two goals in mind: to launch surveillance testing on the UC Berkeley campus as quickly as possible while enticing people to take advantage of the resource.

Led by a team of campus and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory affiliates, IGI conducted a study on campus to develop Free Asymptomatic Saliva Testing, or FAST. Typically, such a test requires a long process of validation before it can be clinically ordered, according to Alexander Ehrenberg, the study’s clinical investigator.

During the early stages of the pandemic, however, time was of the essence. The study provided campus with a way to distribute experimental COVID-19 tests in a more timely manner, the results of which could be verified with a clinically ordered test for those whose outcomes were “positive” or “inconclusive,” added Erica Moehle, a molecular biologist and site coordinator for kiosk testing setups.

“We wanted to help campus get things up and going sooner,” Ehrenberg said in an email. “In doing this, we were able to start testing people working on campus to try and catch folks who might infect others before an outbreak happened.”

Although the study examined 11,971 tests from a cohort of 3,653 participants, it was eventually discontinued due to a couple of reasons.

According to Moehle, campus needed to consolidate its resources in the fall so that it could provide self-collected swab tests to faculty, staff and students then on campus. Additionally, a study was also no longer required for the saliva-based test, as it had been clinically validated and could be ordered for specific purposes, Ehrenberg added.

“For example, children on the autism spectrum or those with sensory-motor difficulties might have a hard time with the swabbing so saliva might be the best way to help them,” Ehrenberg said in the email. “We have no reason to think that we were systematically missing positive cases by having picked saliva for IGI FAST, the decision with campus mostly came down to costs and technical feasibility.”

Though the saliva-based testing was determined to be a viable option and was continued in its use for at-home testing, the switch to swab-based testing had little effect on participation, if any.

Overall, surveillance testing programs are very good at detecting COVID-19 in asymptomatic individuals, Moehle said. Making these tests accessible, as well as being transparent about the goals and decisions made behind the scenes, are key to boosting testing participation rates, Ehrenberg added.

“A one-size fits all solution doesn’t work when you have a heterogeneous population like UC Berkeley,” Ehrenberg said in the email. “It’s important to listen to the people you are serving to collaborate on creating a culture of safety, rather than just forcing them to do things.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.