September 21, 2021

How U of I fought the clock to develop a COVID-19 test that schools will use this fall

“We had this criteria -- operationally simple, rapid and inexpensive”

In the spring of 2020 with no COVID-19 vaccines, an unchecked killer virus and shutdown fears, a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created a solution that not only kept the campus open but will also help countless younger students stay healthy this year.

A simple saliva test for COVID-19 -- that’s inexpensive and far less invasive than nose swabs -- evolved in a matter of months and proved so popular that there’s a bottleneck of orders for school districts being processed by Shield Illinois, a U of I-affiliated organization now managing the test program.

But 16 months ago, there was no straight line from A to Z.

Instead, “there was a tremendous time crunch,” recalled U of I chemistry Professor Paul J. Hergenrother, one of the scientists who developed the test along with chemistry Professor Martin Burke.

“My memory is of the tremendous pressure we felt to really work as hard as we could,” Hergenrother said. “We had this criteria -- operationally simple, rapid and inexpensive.”

The clock was ticking. The team began in early May last year with a target of July to start tests on campus before an influx of students returned in August.

COVID-19 is spread primarily by droplets from the nose and mouth, so analyzing saliva seemed logical. “It makes sense to test the fluid which is responsible for lots of infections,” Hergenrother told the Daily Herald in August 2020.

Back in the summer of 2020, it could still take days with most tests to know if a person was negative or positive. U of I’s test lets people drool into a tube. The contents are then subjected to a molecular chain reaction test that shows the presence of COVID-19 genes, with results usually available in hours.

“The advantages of this (test) became pretty obvious,” Hergenrother said. “First of all it’s saliva, which makes it a lot easier on individuals, and we bypassed one step that makes it time-consuming and expensive -- RNA extraction.” RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is similar to DNA and helps identify COVID-19.

‘Consumed by it’

“Basically, during that time (summer 2020) we were all consumed by it. It was a tough time, because the university was closed and we couldn’t meet in person,” Hergenrother recalled.

“It was pretty crazy, very hectic. The insidious thing about the virus is that asymptomatic people can transmit it, and that’s always been the challenge: people walking around not knowing they’re infected, yet infecting others.”

In the fall of 2020, the university set up testing stations across campus. The ability to quickly identify COVID-19 cases, then isolate those with positive results, drove the number of infections down compared to the numbers at other colleges and allowed U of I to operate in relative normalcy.

The screening system continues, with U of I showing a positivity rate of 0.86% for COVID-19 cases on Sunday, in contrast with the whole state’s level of 5%.

The saliva test is even more relevant as the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19 causes a surge of cases, Hergenrother said.

At a recent event at U of I, Gov. J.B. Pritzker praised “the humble heroes of the Shield team who developed a fast, accurate and affordable saliva-based diagnostic test. The Shield team has truly changed the world.”

School bottleneck

The state announced Aug. 4 it would provide free Shield Illinois saliva tests to all K-12 school districts; previously the test had been offered only to schools in low-income communities with high infection rates

The Illinois Department of Public Health also revised guidelines for schools so that instead of quarantining, close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases can now follow a “test to stay” regime that lets them attend school.

The result was an explosion of more than 1,200 schools signing up for Shield this fall, officials said Aug. 24.

The new volumes of applicants have resulted in delays for some districts. Getting schools into the supply chain for vials and other equipment, plus ensuring they’re in the system for obtaining test results, is not an instantaneous process, Shield Illinois communications lead Ben Taylor said.

Parents need to sign consent forms, districts must compile a roster of participants, schools must establish a testing location and an operating plan, and Shield needs to enter students’ and teachers’ information in a massive system, among other tasks.

“The way we have it mapped out, we will make significant progress in onboarding schools by the end of September, with continual onboarding of batches of school districts throughout the month,” Taylor said.

As of Friday, he estimated there are 1,400 school buildings in play.

“We understand the frustration that it hasn’t been available at the beginning of school for everybody,” Taylor said, “but we’re working as fast as we can to get testing stood up across the state.”