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Jackie Fong, Elizabeth Fidalgo Da SilvaJackie Fong leads staff member Elizabeth Fidalgo Da Silva through the MyCap app as part of a pilot project to screen campus volunteers for COVID-19.

Researchers set to screen for COVID-19 on campus

UWindsor researchers launched a pilot project to screen 60 campus volunteers for COVID-19. Participants in the COVID Surveillance Platform study will have their saliva tested weekly, and will get results via a cellphone app called MyCap.

Phase one of the three-phase campus COVID screening program started on March 9, for individuals working in the Faculty of Science’s Essex Centre of Research (CORe) building.

“This will be critical for the rapid response and virus surveillance,” says lead researcher and biomedical sciences professor Lisa Porter.

“We’re using a low-cost, rapid PCR test, which was developed by chemistry and biochemistry’s Yufeng Tong as part of a WE-Spark Health Institute seed grant; this test has a very low number of false positives, similar to that of public health, and results can be achieved in 45 minutes.”

Dr. Porter says there is a lower viral load in saliva compared to the nasal swab, so when someone’s saliva tests positive, there is a heightened concern that they are capable of spreading the virus.

Researchers will pool samples and test participants’ saliva in groups to decrease costs and time, factors needed for increasing the number of individuals being screened. If one person tests positive, everyone in their group is notified on MyCap and is called back for individual testing.

“They are also instructed to immediately self-isolate and it is requested that they notify their supervisor,” says study manager Jackie Fong (BSc 2018, MSc 2021).

There is currently no unified preparedness plan for Ontario universities and colleges for Fall 2021.

“With studies suggesting that up to 45 per cent of COVID positive people are asymptomatic and possibly contagious for 12.3 days before symptoms arise, it is important that we are proactive to ensure the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty as we return to campus,” says Chris Houser, dean of science.

Test sites will be monitored by technicians who guide participants through the procedure. Each week, volunteers collect their own saliva, which is then transported to the third floor of CORe for processing.

“In phase two we’ll expand the number of volunteers and by September 2021 we hope to build up the capacity and a workflow to test every single person who comes on the campuses of UWindsor and St. Clair College and report the testing results in the same day,” says Porter.

“In addition to preventing outbreaks and creating a safer environment, this program will make us leaders in the province for encouraging face-to-face learning.”

The screening program is developing a dashboard that will also link to the wastewater database of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER), which investigates COVID-19 trends in the local population and identifies prevalent strains.

“Director of GLIER, Mike McKay, is leading wastewater COVID testing, which is a great resource to identify any new variants of COVID that are surfacing in our population. We can modify our tests’ primers and screen for that particular variant,” Porter says.

The cross-discipline study brings together staff, faculty, and students from the Department of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Computer Science, GLIER, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Department of Psychology, WE-Spark Health Institute, St. Clair College, and Markham-based industry partner Single Molecule Research Inc.

The study is still looking for volunteers for phase-one. Anyone who works in CORe is asked to email Fong to participate.

“It is important for campus to know that the heart of this study is about working together to try and get us back to some normalcy,” says Porter.

—Sara Elliott