UI proves itself to be at forefront of COVID-19 testing, research

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Cameron Krasucki

Illinois student Avery Robinson takes a University COVID-19 test at the ARC on Feb. 1. Illinois has been an innovator in COVID-19 testing.

By Samantha Boyle, Managing Editor for Reporting

As a research institution, it is no surprise that the University has been at the forefront of COVID-19 testing and research. After online instruction began about a year ago, researchers were working tirelessly across campus until they developed a simple test that started being used in July. Since then, the tests have been picked up by other institutions and more recently, the test was approved for emergency use by the FDA. Here is a brief timeline of how Illinois became a top innovator in COVID-19 testing.

July

The first COVID-19 testing sites opened on July 8. The tests were developed by the University’s COVID-19 SHIELD: Target, Test, Tell team, chaired by Martin Burke, professor in LAS. This saliva test was one of the first of its kind with a 99.8-99.9% accuracy rate. The results of the test are available after six to 12 hours and cost less than the original nasal swab.

August

In late August, news broke that the saliva test received FDA Emergency Use Authorization. This authorization opened doors for other diagnostic laboratories to use the test and scale it across the nation. However, it was later announced in September that the University backtracked on the announcement of the authorization.

A University program, Center for Health Informatics also allowed students to work with health agencies on data science projects. Students were analyzing social media data and developed information dashboards for local health departments.

On Aug. 24, the University also released the COVID-19 dashboard that allows viewers to see how many tests were done and how many positive cases were found every day.

More than 60,000 tests were administered by the end of August.

September

The month of September saw an effort to bring the saliva tests to the rest of the C-U community.

“Its first major deployment should be to serve the community. K–12 education: We’ve had two meetings with the superintendents of the school districts, and we will be looking at a way to make it available to the general public,” Jones said at a Senate executive committee meeting back in September. 

At this point, the tests already made their way to the University of Illinois at Springfield and Chicago.

By the end of September, more than 500,000 saliva tests had been administered.

October

The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, where the COVID-19 tests are processed, was designed to process 10,000 tests a day. Because the University started requiring students to be tested twice a week, more tests were coming in to be processed. In order to keep up with the tests, the lab would need to automate the process even more.

About 650,000 tests were administered by the end of October.

November

In November, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced plans to adopt the saliva test. Through Wisconsin’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, about 10,000 nasal swabs were being tested per day. The saliva tests cost about $20-$30 each, while the nasal swabs cost about $100.

December

The University was still waiting for its FDA Emergency Authorization approval. The University also reached one million tests total since the tests started.

January

Anyone who got tested starting in January was hit with the same question: Straw or funnel? The new test tubes and way to take the test started because of a new processing system that made testing more efficient. At the same time, the new and smaller tubes have less of an environmental impact. As for the straw and funnel, Burke said there is no difference in their environmental impact, according to a previously published article by The Daily Illini.

At the end of January, 1.2 million tests were administered.

February

In February, UW Madison started administering the saliva tests.

The University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory also started shifting toward a more automatic approach in processing the saliva tests. Two decapping robots and two liquid handling robots have been helpful in the automation process, making the testing more efficient.

An online smell test was also developed in the month of February. This test was developed by a group of 11 people on the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research, which ACES professor M. Yanina Pepino is a part of.

March

The FDA finally approved the saliva test for emergency use on March 1. With this approval, the tests can be expanded more broadly beyond the UI System.

Samantha is senior in Media. 

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