On-campus Covid tests ‘may worsen UK’s national shortage’

Concerns flagged over reliability of private and asymptomatic tests and lack of coordination with national system

October 1, 2020
Students walk at a pop-up testing centre for Covid-19 in Glasgow, Scotland on September 24, 2020
Source: Getty

Universities’ moves to create their own Covid-19 testing systems for students and staff amid a surge of cases on campuses may exacerbate national testing shortages and may be insufficient to prevent a widespread shift to online teaching, it has been warned.

Outbreaks have already hit dozens of UK universities just a couple of weeks into the autumn term, with thousands of students being kept in isolation and institutions under mounting pressure to move to remote learning or delay the start of teaching.

In response, at least 12 universities in England and Wales were launching their own Covid-19 testing regimes. Research by THE found that at least 10 of the Russell Group’s 24 members were going down this route.

Two institutions – the University of Exeter and the London School of Economics – have partnered with a private provider on testing, two are using NHS tests at their own centres and six have set up their own in-house tests. Five universities said their schemes were aimed at testing asymptomatic students and staff.

Many universities in the US and at least four universities in Canada have also established Covid-19 testing systems dedicated to their own staff and students.

Often it is the most prestigious institutions that have set up their own testing services. In the UK, all 10 of the 23 modern universities in MillionPlus that responded to a THE query on testing said they had not set up their own regime.

Representatives from university associations in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand told THE that students and staff were using national testing centres.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Independent Sage committee, said that universities setting up their own testing systems was “far from ideal, as we don’t know about comparability of tests or…how they link the data up to the national system”.

The move would exacerbate a national shortage of testing reagents in the UK, he added. “There are going to be shortages of reagents and things because if the national ones are facing those shortages, then more people piling in is just going to exacerbate it. But the fundamental problem is that somebody needs to sort out the supply chain for everybody,” he said.

However, Professor McKee said he was “not condemning universities” for taking this approach given the UK’s lack of a coordinated national approach to testing for universities.

Alex Favier, director of global and political affairs at the University of Nottingham, who is leading on the institution’s in-house testing service, said he hoped the system would be able to do 1,000 tests a day by the end of October.

“Obviously, it’s a significant investment, but we think it’s a worthwhile one and the cost per test of doing it in-house is a lot cheaper than using a private provider to run this for us,” he said.

“It’s all very well for the government to say: ‘Don’t do any asymptomatic testing; the priority is symptomatic testing.’ Well, if we don’t do it and lots of students become asymptomatically infected and they don’t know that they’ve got it, where will we be in a month’s time as a university, as a sector and as a country?”

Mr Favier said Nottingham was “paying for all the kit, equipment and staff” and the reagents the institution is using were not the same as those used in hospitals or in pillar two swab testing for the wider population “deliberately to avoid creating pressure on the NHS supply chain”.

He added that the university has for months been trying to engage with government to discuss how the service might connect into the national testing strategy, but that these efforts have been met only with confusion in Whitehall.

Exeter has partnered with Halo, a commercial provider of US-manufactured saliva-based tests, to provide same-day and next-day results.

Sean Fielding, director of innovation, impact and business at Exeter, said the university had “bought tens of thousands of tests” and was using 100 to 150 a day.

“We didn’t want to be a burden on the NHS programmes…but also we wanted the flexibility to be able to target testing if we were worried about somewhere,” he said.

However, Professor McKee suggested that UK universities’ moves to take testing into their own hands may not be enough to stave off closures. “Some will be closing their courses altogether and doing what we were doing in April and May, and some will be in a better position to move to online,” he said.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, said her institution was sticking with NHS testing, adding that private tests had issues in terms of reliability and joining up to the national test-and-trace system. Manchester also did not want to “take away” staff, reagents or equipment from the NHS system by “setting up ourselves”, she added.

Andrew Rhodes, Swansea University’s registrar, said his institution had also elected not to establish its own testing regime following discussions with the local health board.

“They were not at all supportive of the university running its own testing regime,” he said.

“In order to get a reliable test from someone who is asymptomatic you would need to have at least two tests eight days apart with a period of isolation or quarantine [in between],” he added.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: On-campus tests ‘may worsen UK’s shortage’

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