Testing college students: UAB develops test, strategy to analyze 6,000 samples per day

Testing college students: UAB develops test, strategy to analyze 6,000 samples per day
UAB COVID testing

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) – More than 200,000 college students will get their COVID-19 test results within 48 hours through the GuideSafe Entry Testing initiative, while most of Alabama is currently waiting a week for results.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)‘s Department of Pathology developed its own test and strategy for testing multiple samples at once, making it possible to analyze 6,000 samples per day.

“Unfortunately, 5 months into the pandemic we continue to have issues with supply chain and that’s what behooved us to develop our own test,” explained Dr. George Netto, the Robert and Ruth Anderson Endowed Chair, Dept. of Pathology, UAB.

“We still need reagents but the type of reagents we acquire are in a continuous supply and this way we are depending on ourselves in time of shortage of reagents.”

Dr. Netto said UAB has been able to scale its testing capacity tenfold for this testing initiative, led by UAB and the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and funded with CARES Act money.

Widespread testing began Tuesday at 13 sites across the state. Students do their own nasal swab while observed by a medical professional.

“There’s significantly less risk for staff having to help these students take the samples, and the nasal swabs work very well for this purpose,” said Dr. Sixto Leal, Director of Microbiology, Dept. of Pathology, UAB.

Dr. Leal developed the testing strategy that includes pooling samples.

“With a low incidence rate, we are expected a 1.5-percent incidence rate with asymptomatic individuals for this population. If you are able to pool samples, those 8 samples test negative, you’re able to report those results same day. If that pool tests positive, then you need to go ahead and test the individual samples,” explained Dr. Leal.

He continued, “If you just pool 8 samples together, and pool 100 of them, we expect 8 of those to be positive, with 96 individual samples to be tested and so when we perform 196 tests, we can report out 800 results with high confidence.”

This type of analysis will continue as UAB conducts sentinel testing, randomly selecting students and staff each week to be tested for COVID-19.

“That’s extremely important,” said Dr. Netto. “For example, four-percent of every staff or student, or employee, teacher is going to be tested randomly every week and we will test them with very similar platforms with what we are talking about, again, nasal swabs, to keep an eye on hot spots, what is the incidence in our own community? And the idea would be to, and hopefully in span in weeks, during the end of the initial student testing, we will roll in a lot of this capacity in a platform throughout the state.”

Dr. Netto said the pooling strategy works when there is a low incidence of infection. The incidence of infection during the pilot phase of GuideSafe Entry Testing was 1.5-percent, said Dr. Netto.

Dr. Netto said testing through this initiative will have no impact on the testing UAB does for patients, health care workers and the community.

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