To facilitate our safe return to campus, University of Windsor researchers have expanded on funded initiatives to create a COVID-19 detection platform for our campus community. Led by Drs. Lisa Porter, Yufeng Tong, Mike McKay, and Kendall Soucie, this multidisciplinary team of researchers are expanding COVID-19 screening through saliva testing and wastewater monitoring. Testing numbers and data trends are communicated to the public through an interactive dashboard on the WE Spark Health Institute website.
In March 2021, the COVID-19 surveillance team rolled out the saliva swab testing program, beginning with limited cohort of participants working in Essex CORe. This innovative rapid screening program tests saliva provided by participants for COVID-19, facilitating early detection of the virus and mitigation of its spread. Organizers have taken steps to steadily increase capacity for saliva sampling starting in May 2021. By September, the screening program will be rolled out campus wide.
Participation in the saliva testing program is voluntary, safe, and anonymous. After completing an e-consent form and providing contact information, participants are assigned a bar code that becomes their identification within the study. Barcodes are assigned to a file and participants receive instructions and communications from the lab through an app called MyCap. Technicians at the collection site guide participants through the self-administered collection process. Samples are transported securely to the testing facility on campus and pooled into cohorts of 4-12 samples for processing and qPCR analysis in collaboration with our industrial partner, SM Research Inc. Participants can take the test up to once a week.
Participants in cohorts that have tested positive for COVID-19 are alerted through the MyCap phone app and invited to retest individually. Following a positive individual test, participants are advised to self-isolate, alert their supervisor, and get tested at a clinical testing site.
The University of Windsor COVID-19 Screening Platform saliva test will not be submitted to Health Canada to become a clinical diagnostic test and should not be used as a substitute for clinical testing of symptomatic individuals. However, the test uses the gold standard qPCR methods and mimics many of the reagents and procedures being used by clinical testing labs. Results of the program, as well as data from others using similar tests, have demonstrated high specificity (low false positives). Because saliva testing is not as sensitive as nasopharyngeal swabbing being conducted clinically, it depends on regular testing intervals (in this case weekly). It is important to note that a negative test result does not necessarily rule out COVID-19 infection and that individuals may come into contact with the virus at any time and could be incubating an early infection that saliva testing cannot detect.
The University of Windsor saliva test collection site is currently located in the 1st floor lobby of the Essex CORe building. This will be expanded to include a site in the St. Dennis Centre in June. Testing will operate from 10:00am-12:00pm and 2:00pm-4:00pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Initiated as a part of the provincial Wastewater Surveillance Initiative coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, the campus wastewater monitoring program has been ramped to support our eventual return to campus. The wastewater monitoring team is currently working with eight municipalities from across the province to conduct weekly surveillance for COVID-19 at wastewater treatment plants. At the University of Windsor, the program samples wastewater several times each week from specific outlets on campus and tests them for the genetic signature of COVID-19.
Initial focus of the campus wastewater monitoring program was on wastewater from University of Windsor residence halls where screening was able to detect the presence of COVID-19, prompting public health testing that identified asymptomatic infections. Early detection and steps taken to mitigate spread of the virus pre-empted an outbreak. The program continues to expand and now includes a number of other strategic locations on campus.
The wastewater monitoring program has proved to be a highly effective leading indicator for the early detection of COVID-19 because it can identify the presence of the virus RNA in sewage even before infected individuals begin to present symptoms of the disease.
The wastewater monitoring program has been covered extensively by the media and results are disseminated weekly by our regional public health unit.
Data collected through the University of Windsor COVID-19 Screening Platform and other local and regional initiatives is available to the public through an interactive dashboard on the WE-SPARK Health Institute COVID Screening Platform webpage at https://www.wesparkhealth.com/covid-screening-platform.
To learn more about COVID-19 screening activities on campus, please visit the WE-SPARK Health Institute COVID Screening Platform webpage at https://www.wesparkhealth.com/covid-screening-platform.