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University of Illinois’ saliva test could allow colleges to go on offense against Covid-19

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CHAMPAIGN (HOI) -- In April, University of Illinois Provost Andreas Cangellaris turned to his faculty to find a way to bring the university's students back on campus in the fall. He reached out to Martin Burke, chemistry professor, who accepted the challenge.

At that point, uncomfortable nasal swabs were the norm nationwide. Burke and his colleague, Paul Hergenrother, researched what it would take to test everyone on campus at least once a week.

Before long, they realized they needed a proverbial bigger boat.

"It became very clear that the nasal swab based test was not going to be sufficient," Burke says. "It's just too slow, too cumbersome, too many supply chain bottlenecks and too expensive."

From that moment, the two began working on a saliva test that could be the key to containing outbreaks in congregate settings like campuses and nursing homes. It got FDA emergency use authorization over the summer, and it's about to expand to colleges across Illinois.

The two biggest advantages are cheaper supplies, and results in a day or less.

"[With] everybody testing twice a week [and] to get the results back within 24 hours, the chance of catching someone before they infect other people is actually quite high," Burke said.

Martin Burke, right, speaks at Gov. JB Pritzker's Covid-19 briefing

Containing Covid-19 at Illinois State

In Normal, Illinois State University chemistry professor John Baur is hoping to gain from Burke's innovation. He's in the process of turning a chemistry classroom into a saliva test processing lab.

"I was planning to teach again, and suddenly I got this job," he said.

It will take another 7-9 weeks for the lab to be up and running, but Baur says the advantages will be worth the wait. Right now, they partner with Pekin's Reditus Labs, but they are one client among many. Each nasal swab the university sends to Reditus costs about $100 to process. The saliva test will be between $20-30 per sample.

Baur also says it can take as many as five days at times to get results back.

"The [saliva] testing will allow us to track things a lot more quickly," Baur said. "Right now we're doing 1,500 to 2,000 tests a week and we can probably ramp that up by a factor of five at least, and be able to have students test more frequently and and be able to catch things quicker."

A tale of two campuses

While testing alone is not enough context to explain an outbreak's severity, the numbers show stark difference between U of I and ISU so far.

U of I's peak single day positivity rate was 2.86 % on August 30, when 104 of their 3,640 tests were positive. Their 7-day rolling positivity rate is 0.38%.

ISU's peak was 20.7% a day earlier, on August 29, when 234 of their 1,126 tests came back positive. Their 7-day rolling positivity rate is 4.8%.

Another difference is the volume. U of I has more students, but they are testing their undergrads twice per week, processing more than 17,000 tests per day twice. ISU has only run more than 1,000 tests one time.

Burke says their lab is staffed 24 hours per day five days per week, and there are shifts on the weekends as well. When Baur's lab is ready at ISU, he expects 16 hours per day of staffing during the week with weekend workers as well.

There's an app for this

Another component to U of I's Covid-19 plan is the Safer Illinois app. Developed by an Illinois company, the saliva test results are sent to each person's account. They also flash a quick all-clear screen as they try to enter a university building.

"You actually have to have gotten your tests on time, and they have to be negative, and then your access is granted." Burke said. "Actually, a really cool output is then the bars have started using this."

ISU has not finalized how many students will need to get tested, or how often, or how they will use the app.

John Baur in the classroom that will soon become a test lab

The science of spit

The science behind the saliva test is the key to its efficiency. Nasal swabs go through a four step process. First, the sample is collected in the nose. Then, it needs to be stored in a special vile called viral transfer medium, or VTM. After that, special equipment is needed to separate the virus RNA from the sample. Finally, the RNA is amplified through a process called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Burke says there are "bottlenecks" all over that process. First, the swabs and VTM cost money and are in high demand. Also, separating the virus RNA sometimes requires robotic equipment.

His saliva test, however, skips all of them. Spit in a tube, heat it up to 95 degrees, and then run it through PCR.

"You're kind of boiling the saliva right out of the gate, and thereby protecting everybody involved in its analysis," Burke said. The heat deactivates the virus. "And so therefore, you can do much more scalable processing and be confident that everybody can be safe. I think that's a critical piece of the puzzle."

Saliva tests don't need a swab and a fancy container, just a tube and some spit.

Innovating in a pandemic

In August, Gov. JB Pritzker (D, IL) hailed the saliva test as one of the breakthroughs in the pandemic. Burke frequently says it allows his campus to be on offense against the virus. A year ago, professors like Burke and Baur could have a relatively low profile. Now, they're a key to their campus' safety.

"I feel like I'm doing something positive for the university and the community," Baur said.

"Chemistry is universal empowering science," Burke believes. "So we love to think about what chemistry can do to impact society."

Bobby Oler @bobbyoler

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