High-Throughput COVID-19 Screening Coming to Campus

UC Davis is planning a unique, multidisciplinary approach to screening its on-campus population for COVID-19 this fall.

Mary Croughan

“In order to bring people back safely to campus and to the Davis community, we must have the capacity to screen all of our UC Davis students and employees for COVID-19 on a consistent, ongoing basis so we can quickly identify people who are infected, even if they are asymptomatic, and isolate them to prevent spread of this disease,” said Mary Croughan, provost and executive vice chancellor and an epidemiologist by training.

The limiting factor with most COVID-19 testing is the time it takes to get results — often as long as seven to 10 days because of the high demand, limited number of medical labs certified by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to perform the tests, and shortages of the proprietary reagents many of the diagnostic machines use. That long turnaround would be a problem in keeping the coronavirus from spreading through a college campus, so UC Davis is making its own way, while still following guidance from county, state and national health officials.

Similar process, different location

UC Davis is ramping up to be able to screen individuals for COVID-19 much faster using an open-source method that may avoid some of the bottlenecks of other approaches.

Richard Michelmore

“It has much the same biochemistry as other tests but does not depend on proprietary reagents that are in limited supply, and uses an innovative low-volume, high-throughput format borrowed from the agricultural genetics industry,” said Richard Michelmore, director of the UC Davis Genome Center, where the screening will be carried out. “It’s a different supply stream, so we’re not competing with clinical labs for the same materials.”

To do these screenings, the Genome Center labs will need to acquire federal certification by extension of an existing license at UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. Similar approaches to certification have been used at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub associated with UC San Francisco.

UC Davis will also conduct contact tracing for people who are found to be positive for COVID-19, with a team overseen by Student Health and Counseling Services seeking to find others who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Cindy Schorzman, medical director for Student Health and Counseling Services, has assembled a team to design the process that will notify individuals with a positive result and give appropriate guidance as to next steps. That team is working closely with public health officials to also help notify close contacts and campus facilities of appropriate next steps based on their level of potential exposure. The confidentiality of the individual with a positive result will be protected, and their name and COVID-19 status will not be shared with their close contacts. 

A heavy lift: Collecting saliva samples

Even though most classes — including all with 50 or more students — will be held remotely this fall, there may still be several thousand people living, working and studying on campus. Organizers of the screening process hope to collect saliva samples from everyone who comes on campus, starting with students who live in the residence halls. Over time, the campus will expand screening to include everyone affiliated with UC Davis — and hopes to eventually offer the service to the Davis community.

Kelly Ratliff

“We want to identify infectious individuals and have them shelter in place so that there’s no significant spread,” said Kelly Ratliff, vice chancellor of Finance, Operations and Administration and a key coordinator of campus responses to the pandemic.

Collection points will be set up at various locations around campus.

“The molecular biology is fairly straightforward for our team of experts at the Genome Center,” said Ken Burtis, professor emeritus of genetics and the recently retired faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost who is assisting as a volunteer with the campus pandemic response. “Perhaps the most challenging part to create will be the sample acquisition process.”

It will be a logistical challenge to collect samples from the on-campus population on a regular basis and ensure people aren’t missed, he said.  The machine the Genome Center will use for the screening ­— called the IntelliQube — can process thousands of samples a day, but it’s not yet clear how many the Genome Center will be able to run. It is anticipated that student employees and volunteers may play a large role in helping carry out the sample collection.

“We don’t want to overpromise,” Burtis said. “We’re at the cutting edge here.”

Organizers will soon learn more, as the machine — which was ordered last week — should arrive in a couple of weeks. There will be a lot of work to do in getting the machine set up, the screenings validated, the sample collection process organized, and all the regulatory and safety precautions completed.

“This is a major undertaking, requiring the hard work of many people to pull off successfully,” Croughan said. “Chancellor May and I thank everyone involved for their efforts to help the campus get off to a successful start this fall.”

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