A pilot project aimed at detecting Covid-19 on college campuses using antigen and other forms of rapid testing has found low levels of the virus among staff and students.
Less than 1 per cent of more than 12,000 rapid Covid-19 tests in third-level colleges have registered positive since campuses reopened.
The tests – a combination of antigen and saliva-based PCR tests – have been conducted as part of a Unicov research study at NUI Galway, Trinity College, University College Cork and University College Dublin.
The low levels of Covid-19 detected in the pilot project will encourage colleges to ease social distancing rules and provide more in-person lectures.
Trinity, for example, announced on Wednesday evening that it will remove social distancing rules from Friday and lectures will operate at full capacity on foot of the latest easing in public health restrictions.
In addition, it is due to reopen its campus to the public for the first time since March 2020, while the library will remove social distancing and booking systems.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said early indications from the pilot project show there is a high level of accuracy with antigen tests when validated by PCR tests.
The testing project, which is being extended to other college campuses, could also play a future role in helping to prevent outbreaks in schools, Mr Harris said.
“My view is that we should use every single tool at our disposal – to throw the kitchen sink at it, for want of a better phrase, in terms of trying to protect each other from Covid -19,” he said.
Mr Harris said he was encouraged by a recent National Public Health Emergency Team letter to Government which recognised there was now a role for greater antigen testing use.
When asked why public health authorities had been so cautious over endorsing antigen testing, he replied: “Medics had a different job and the concern that they didn’t want to get involved in mixed messaging. They wanted to continue to extol the virtues of PCR testing and the vaccination programme.”
As of October 8th a total of 12,836 tests across the four university sites were completed. The current positivity rate is less than 1 per cent.
About 60 per cent of participants in the the study are students and 40 per cent staff.
The Unicov pilot project is to be extended to other campuses soon including University of Limerick, Waterford Institute of Technology, Dublin Business School, Griffith College, St Nicholas's Montessori College, Cavan Monaghan ETB's Further Education and Training Campus in Cavan and Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Some third-level colleges are currently taking different approaches to social distancing and in-person lecture.
UCD has among the more relaxed approaches with no social distancing in lectures or limits on numbers in lectures.
Trinity, by contrast, has taken a more cautious approach and limited in-person lectures to no more than 150 students, and has more online classes. The university is due to review its guidelines shortly.
Mitigation measures such as mandatory wearing of face masks apply across all higher education institutions.
The Unicov research programme, meanwhile, is being extended to include waste-water surveillance to monitor the prevalence of Covid-19 across NUI Galway, Trinity College, University College Cork and University College Dublin.