What does a post-pandemic society look like? While visions vary, many experts agree that the return to a new normal will likely incorporate frequent COVID-19 testing.
Some educational institutions, such as Northeastern University, are leading the charge in implementing robust large-scale testing programs that have already proven effective in curbing virus transmission.
In a February 25, 2021 presentation, Matt McGowan, supply chain manager of Northeastern’s Life Sciences Testing Center, detailed the university’s testing protocol. Northeastern’s Boston campus is an institution of 5,000 faculty and 28,000 students. Students on campus are tested every three days and faculty every four in a protocol that’s enabled Northeastern to administer more than 5,000 tests a day in spring 2021.
A key first step in establishing this robust program was deciding between an insourcing or an outsourcing model. Insourcing involves administering tests and informing students and faculty of results through a testing facility that’s located on the university campus. Outsourcing relies on partnerships with labs outside the university to administer and deliver test results.
The decision to outsource or insource depends heavily on the type of institution. As a top research institution with high quality scientific labs on-site, insourcing works well for Northeastern University. When choosing between insourcing or outsourcing COVID-19 testing protocol, administrators should consider several factors:
The most critical decision, McGowan says, is choosing a quality test type that is right for the university’s needs. Insourcing allowed Northeastern to rely on rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the gold standard due to their high sensitivity and specificity. PCR tests are highly accurate at detecting present infection as compared to other tests, like rapid antigen diagnostic tests (RADT) and real-time loop mediated amplification (LAMP). PCR tests are also scalable, which means hundreds of samples can be processed simultaneously for faster results, a key factor when it comes to large-scale testing.
Other considerations for maintaining quality systems include the university’s ability to obtain licenses and certification for administering tests, in compliance with the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA). Before a lab can accept human samples for diagnostic testing, it must be certified by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Larger institution that already have scientific research facilities will likely have an easier time establishing these systems.
Forecasting the cost of insourcing can be complex initially, but it does ultimately give administrators more flexibility to choose between different cost reduction options. Outsourcing is also appealing from a cost standpoint. Due to the large variety of testing institutions available, administrators can choose one at a price point that fits their needs.
Effective testing relies on a quick turnaround time for results. Insourcing, when executed correctly, is generally faster due to the proximity of on-site labs that serve only one customer. However, universities must invest in the right equipment and personnel to ensure it actually is faster. Outsourcing to another lab involves shipping, which typically slows turnaround time.
Insourcing means the university is its own top customer, with more flexibility to increase and decrease capacity as fluctuations occur. Reliability of turnaround time is a key factor to look at when choosing between insourcing and outsourcing. It’s important to find out the variability of result times.
Insourcing gives the university control over logistics like hours of operation, turnaround time, number of tests ordered, and the flexibility to adapt to relevant test types as the virus evolves. Outsourcing means these variables are out of the administration’s control.
McGowan asserts that insourcing COVID-19 testing is superior to outsourcing because it provides universities with more complete control and greater quality, speed, and reliability. Ultimately, it was the right decision for Northeastern. However, for other schools, cost considerations and operational capacity can influence the decision to outsource testing. To learn more about establishing COVID-19 testing protocol on a university campus, visit the Thermo Fisher university testing web page.