As the coronavirus pandemic has developed this year, many national governments have come under fire for being flawed in their responses. However, some organizations have taken their own steps to fight the virus. New scientist spoke to some of these universities, companies, and sports associations to find out how they did it.
Test methods are important
A coronavirus test is usually not the most comfortable experience of putting a long swab up your nose or throat. When the students returned to campus in September, the University of Exeter, UK encouraged them to test themselves to see if they had Covid-19 symptoms by offering spit-up saliva tests.
When case numbers rose in the region in October, like most parts of the UK, Public Health England took over the tests and switched to the usual swab tests. Once the students realized the change in approach, the number of people signing up for tests dropped, suggesting the spitting method is less obnoxious, says Sean Fielding of the University of Exeter. “The number of people who received a test went down in half pretty quickly when they found it was a swab test.”
After the outbreak was brought under control, the university again asked for saliva samples.
Check all of them
The idea of regular more frequent testing for everyone, whether or not they have symptoms, is the basis for Operation Moonshot, which the UK government has postponed. The problem is that the country does not yet have enough testing capacity to cover them all.
However, some companies pay private labs to run in-house mass testing of their employees. In this way, BAE Systems returned employees to work in September at its Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria shipyard, where the Royal Navy’s fleet of submarines is manufactured.
Weekly tests are offered to all 8000 on-site staff and visitors using RT-LAMP technology, which provides faster results than standard Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) – they can be received within an hour. “It’s very quick and very sensitive,” says Chris Stanley of Circular1 Health, which offers the service. Anyone who tests positive will be given a second PCR test to confirm the result, reducing the number of people who are mistakenly asked to self-isolate.
Pool test results
Cambridge University has also offered bulk tests for everyone, but the number of tests that need to be taken has been reduced by aggregating the results of up to 10 people sharing accommodation.
Weekly tests are offered to all 15,000 students in college halls or apartments. Students in halls are grouped together by those who share kitchens or bathrooms. A pack of swabs is sent to an indoor group or a household, then students try themselves and place their swabs in the same pot.
If the liquid from the pot is positive, each person in this group will take an individual test. “We’re reducing the number of tests by up to seven times,” says Patrick Maxwell from the University of Cambridge. Self-withdrawal also reduces the number of healthcare workers required.
It is impossible to know for sure the effectiveness of the strategy as it has not been tested in a randomized study. However, the results published on the university’s website suggest that it is beneficial. The proportion of students at the university who were checked every week had increased since October. In early December, just over 10,000 people were tested every week. The prevalence of the virus in asymptomatic students fell from a high of 1.5 percent in mid-November to no detectable cases in December, a prevalence of less than 0.01 percent.
The decline was undoubtedly aided by a lockdown in England for most of November, but figures from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that coronavirus prevalence in the community was around 0.9 percent in early December. The ONS number is not a fair comparison as it includes people with Covid-19 symptoms as well as people with asymptomatic symptoms. However, a recent report suggests that about two-thirds of those who tested positive in the ongoing ONS survey are asymptomatic, which would bring the community’s asymptomatic number down to 0.6 percent – still much higher than Cambridge -Students.
Testing the blood and spit of people is one way to find carriers of the coronavirus, but there’s another fertile testing ground – their feces. Searching for pathogens in sewer systems can be an efficient way to test many people at the same time.
The University of Arizona is running wastewater tests in many of its student dormitories and campus buildings, in addition to standard Covid-19 countermeasures. Waste pipes can either be accessible where they exit from buildings or through manhole covers.
When a pipe serving multiple buildings gives a positive result, it’s difficult to respond, says Richard Carmona, faculty member of the university and former US surgeon general. However, if a pipe from a dormitory was positive, each resident was tested individually. Two infected people were found, none of whom had symptoms. Both then self-isolated. “If we hadn’t picked these two students up the next morning, they would have spread them all over the ward,” says Carmona. “It gives you an early warning.”
The university is currently in discussions with architects who want to design buildings with access to the waste pipes from each floor so that testers can more easily narrow down their searches to combat future disease outbreaks.
In addition to the usual testing and contact tracing measures, some better-funded organizations such as sports leagues and television and film companies have continued the pandemic by temporarily cutting employees off from the rest of the population in so-called bubbles. As an outdoor sport that requires little close contact, cricket was an obvious candidate for this approach. Few rule changes were required, although players could no longer buff the ball with spit or sweat from their faces, a common way to bend it in mid-air.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) launched a series of international and domestic games for men and women in July. In England, games were played on four cricket fields with on-site hotels. Players, officials and support staff had to stay in the hotel or on the grounds between games.
Some employees stayed in the hotels for the entire three months. Players were allowed to go home between games, but to get back into the bladder they had to be tested a few days in advance depending on how risky their home environment was. “We treated it like a space launch,” says Nick Peirce, Chief Medical Officer of the ECB.
Even if they were in the bladder, players were wary of false negative test results. They were required to wear masks in corridors, stay in designated areas, and wear electronic tags to make sure they followed the rules and didn’t get too close. “We always followed a fine line,” says Peirce. “Your behavior in the field and in the field [hotel] Balconies were observed very well. “
Although two venue employees contracted coronavirus in the summer, they appeared to have caught it from someone outside without a relay inside the bladder. Only one home game had to be canceled after a player tested positive and it was unclear whether he had come into contact with the substitutes. Another player, Jofra Archer, was forced to isolate himself in his hotel room for five days after sneaking away between games to meet a friend at his home.
Overall, however, the strategy was effective, says Peirce. TV stations used clever angles to avoid too much footage from the empty stands and added the “hum” of a crowd in an artificial background. “In the end, the players had to play and people could see cricket on TV,” says Peirce. “It was an incredible success.”
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