The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic forced virtually every college and university to adapt in order to continue serving students. However, because so much about the novel coronavirus was unknown, taking early action often felt like a shot in the dark. Northeastern University (NU) was among those that decided to help students safely return to campus in the fall of 2020, which was no small undertaking. While many institutions were able to set up robust testing programs using their existing facilities, NU has no affiliated medical school and lacked laboratory facilities and personnel to handle so many COVID-19 tests. Undaunted, they made an investment in setting up a CLIA-certified lab from scratch to create a testing program to fit their specific needs. Many of their “shot in the dark” decisions turned out to be right on target.
NU’s testing infrastructure ultimately excelled throughout the school year, demonstrating forethought in anticipating the rise of variants and readily adapting to changing knowledge about viral transmission. We spoke with Dr. Jared Auclair, a professor of biotechnology, chemistry, and chemical biology and the Associate Dean of Professional Programs and Graduate Affairs at NU, about his role in building a testing program from the ground up and how the university’s considerable investment paid off.
Q: What role have you played in your institution’s COVID-19 testing program?
Jared Auclair (JA): “In April 2020, the university decided they would reopen for fall 2020, and they immediately knew that testing was going to be a critical part of that reopening process. I was asked to join the testing task force and became responsible for getting our COVID-19 testing lab from zero to CLIA-certified and operational. So, from the university’s perspective, I’m in charge of the lab operation.”
Q: Was setting up the testing program a smooth process or did it involve a lot of compromises?
JA: “The one thing that was agreed upon was the necessity of testing. Beyond that, it was a complete free-for-all on what that meant. Do we do it ourselves? Do we contract with someone else? NU has no medical school attached, so we didn’t have any existing platform or infrastructure for a testing program. We really had to weigh the financial considerations of setting up our own lab against the control we’d have over turnaround time and testing capacity. That control was critical, since at that time it was taking days to get results at many testing centers, and universities can’t take that risk. In mid-June, we made the final decision to make that investment and had a lab space identified at the same time. From there, we had about six weeks to hire the staff, pick the tests, and get all the validations in place.”
Q: How did your program evolve as we learned more about the virus and transmission?
JA: “The initial plan was to test students every five to seven days, but as we learned more about asymptomatic transmission and such, we transitioned to a three-day cadence for students and twice weekly for faculty and staff. Our initial capacity was 2500 tests or so each week, but in October we expanded our capacity to 20,000 tests per day, just in case. We basically doubled the size of the lab. We also set up our own I.T. system for monitoring compliance and contact tracing and made sure we had additional spaces for quarantine and isolation. As we learned more about the importance of wearing a mask, we put emphasis on that, and the university was good at communicating that. They used a hashtag (#ProtectThePack) and students really grasped the importance of protecting each other, and it fostered a sense of community.”
Q: What were some of the choices you made that, in retrospect, really paid off?
JA: “First, the choice to fully invest in setting up the lab. We had no idea what the duration of the pandemic would be, and we had to plan for reopening at some point. And now we have this structure in place to be ready for anything that comes next. Then, our choice of test. My background is in viral resistance to AIDS drugs, so the first thing I thought about was what mutations and variants might show up in the future. With the test we used, we were able to track the UK variant on campus, and I really feel like I made a good prediction there. We had some pretty stringent restrictions in place and this really thorough testing and tracing ecosystem, and when we saw the spikes for these variants and a lot of other universities having to close, we were able to remain operational. And then going forward, as students are being vaccinated, continued surveillance testing can let us keep an eye on any variants and be proactive in dealing with that as soon as possible.”
Q: What are the major takeaways and lessons from NU’s experience with COVID-19?
JA: “It shows us the value of having an infrastructure in place to deal with situations like this. Now that we have these testing spaces, it’s a good opportunity to keep using them beyond COVID-19 for monitoring so that if there’s a future pandemic or a biological warfare situation, we can be proactive. Another big takeaway was the power of surveillance testing and how having that system in place can allow us to function as close to normal as we can during a pandemic. It’s not easy, but it’s doable, and seeing that happen in NU is kind of a microcosm for how it could happen in society if we’re willing to make that investment.”