Durham pushing to be leading university in improved mass testing for Covid-19


Durham University is trialing a scheme that would widely distribute Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs), an alternative to the current Covid-19 test (RT-PCR) to the majority of students.

The Covid-19 LFT requires the participant to take a swab of the inside of the nose and back of the throat, using a long cotton bud. The swab is placed inside a fluid. Droplets of the fluid flow sideways onto the test to reveal the result, similar to a pregnancy test. If the test shows two lines, the participant has tested positive for Covid-19. 

The Lateral Flow Test is one the new testing technologies for coronavirus currently being trialled across the UK. Participants can expect results within thirty minutes, compared to RT-PCR tests, for which results can take days.

an ideal world, what we would be doing is testing every member of the university, staff student, livers in, livers out, every week”

Professor Jacqui Ramagge, Executive Dean for Science at Durham University

Stephenson, Van Mildert and University Colleges are the first to pilot how effective the distribution will be under different college residency models. Stephenson livers-in are in self-catered accommodation organised into households of 18, separated into three flats of 6 people. Van Mildert students are catered but allowed to take the tests themselves in their own rooms. Castle is operating central testing centre on its college site. 

As of 10th November, Durham University has provided tests to 850 students. The University has developed instructional videos and quizzes to help students administer tests on their own and achieve more accurate results. 

The University hopes to expand this across all the colleges in the future. Leading the pilot scheme, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, the Executive Dean for Science, said in “an ideal world, what we would be doing is testing every member of the university, staff student, livers in, livers out, every week”, However, that would need to be approved by the University Executive Committee (UEC).

It would also require students to subscribe to the scheme, which will remain voluntary. Mark Tallentire, Durham University’s Communications Officer (Corporate) said that, for the initiative to reduce rates of coronavirus across Durham and reduce regulations, the University “needs as many students to take part as it can”.

The scheme would encourage students to get tested regularly.  50% of students who have contracted Covid-19 have been asymptomatic. The national average of asymptomatic Covid cases is 20%.  Professor Ramagge argued that “a regular testing regime, would mean we could regularly identify people who are infected early in the process”, before they are show symptoms, if at all, reducing their contact with others whilst they are contagious.  She added that LFTs give a “speedy result”, allowing people “isolate early” and “reduce the number of people they infect”. 

Ramagge hopes regular testing will reduce the R rate, allowing the government to reduce restrictions placed on student life, both academic and social. She also expressed that if entire college households got tested if one member receives a positive test result, that would serve to reduce ”repeated isolation” or “extended isolation” for members that test negative. 

When asked how Durham is performing in testing compared to other universities in regard to testing, Ramagge believes Durham is doing “very, very well”. Two other universities, De Montfort and Oxford, are piloting LFTs, but Ramagge said Durham is alone in distributing LFTs widely and on a self-administered basis.

The University of Cambridge is undergoing regular RT-PCR testing, with 80.4% students consenting to tests between 2nd-8th November, concluding 23 positive cases of coronavirus, 0.5% of the student population. 

Professor Ramage said she was “proud of the way the University has acted in general in response to Covid”. She praised the University’s advance preparation to send students home in anticipation of the nationwide lockdown, moving the majority of teaching online and the precautions taken by colleges to protect the safety of staff and student. Up to November, there has been no evidence of university staff members contracting Covid-19 on campus.  

Image: James Stringer via Flickr

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