How do you prevent the spread of a contagious and potentially deadly virus on a university campus, where gathering, socializing, and speaking are the cornerstones of daily life? At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), this challenge was answered—in true university fashion—with collaboration and innovation.
UIUC suspended in-person classes and evacuated residence halls on March 16, 2020, as COVID-19 cases began to rise across the country. Rather than accepting virtual learning as the new normal, university administrators immediately began to explore what it would take to bring students safely back to campus in the fall. Structured teaching could take place via Zoom, but UIUC Provost Andreas Cangellaris says the college experience is about so much more.
“As we’ve seen over the past year, social distancing driven by health and wellness does result in emotional and psychological stress on everyone,” says Dr. Cangellaris. “Young people in particular can’t afford to lose a single day of their social encounters that help them form who they are.”
With this in mind, UIUC began assembling a team of faculty and staff, researchers, and public health officials. Together, they created SHIELD, a comprehensive ecosystem for testing and tracking potential COVID-19 outbreaks across campus.
Developing a Workable Testing Program
By leveraging local experts and existing infrastructure – including university labs – UIUC built the extensive platform required to run the program. In the process, they also created a new type of COVID-19 test.
At the time, samples were being collected via an uncomfortable nasopharyngeal swab. But necessary reagents were in short supply and the group knew that students were unlikely to submit to such an uncomfortable procedure several times per week. This made the standard RT-qPCR tests a poor fit for a routine screening program. Fortunately, new science was demonstrating that saliva-based tests could be at least as sensitive as swabs. By the end of May 2020, UIUC researchers developed covidSHIELD, a proprietary saliva-based test.
The research team was able to move SHIELD operations into UIUC’s well-equipped veterinary diagnostics laboratory. Testing of faculty members began on July 6, 2020. UIUC also made contact tracing an early priority. Professor William C. Sullivan and his team at the Smart, Healthy Communities Initiative worked to pilot the Safer Illinois app to use in concert with the SHIELD program. Students would receive test results, reminders, and potential exposure notifications through the app. Safer Illinois also verified a student’s status, proving they were COVID-negative so they could enter university facilities.
All of this came together (with some hiccups, of course) to begin undergraduate testing on August 15, showing just how much can be achieved on a tight timeline when great minds come together.
“I never could have expected our university to be able to establish this ecosystem,” said Dr. Cangellaris. “I knew we’d do our best to make something happen, but as always, the community surprised me.”
The technology piloted through SHIELD is also poised to contribute even more to the community as it expands beyond UIUC’s campus. In March 2021, covidSHIELD received an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food & Drug Administration, making an efficient and low-cost saliva- based test available for general use.
Proactive and Pragmatic Planning
While countless hurdles were overcome, university officials were also realistic about their resource constraints in the development and operation of SHIELD. The cost of administering 10,000 tests per day was a core concern.
“We’re a public university and we have limited resources, so we couldn’t afford to be administering a test that would cost $30 or $40 at that scale,” says Dr. Cangellaris. Although SHIELD’s test requires just $10 of reagents, the operational costs of running an average of 10,000 tests per day still requires an investment of around $3-5 million per month.
Understanding the behaviors and needs of the student population was also central to the program’s success. For example, administrators knew that 100% student compliance with the social distancing regulations was unlikely. To proactively minimize the risks, they provided students with carefully designed activities and opportunities for social interaction that fit within COVID safety protocols. This allowed the students to blow off steam and make compliance more palatable.
The Pandemic’s Legacy
Perhaps most importantly, the struggles of the last year united the university community more than ever before, highlighting its strengths and what the community can achieve together.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing learned through this experience is that acting in the interest of the common good is one of the best things that a human being can do,” said Dr. Cangellaris. “This also reminds us why universities need to be embraced – even when we pursue research that seems crazy and we’re trying to pursue things that people don’t understand. Behind that ambition hides the ability to tackle a crisis in the community’s best interest. We know how to make the impossible possible.”
To learn more about UIUC’s inspiring story, please see our Q&A with Dr. Cangellaris. For more information on how Thermo Fisher can support your university testing needs, download our free Guide to Asymptomatic Population Testing.