Huge Covid-19 surveillance study to focus on students

TCD, UCD, NUI Galway and UCC to test 8,000 in autumn in search of early-warning system

Four universities – TCD, UCD, NUI Galway and UCC – are taking part in the Covid-19 study, each of which will employ different types of tests, both random and serial.

As many as 8,000 third-level students will participate in Ireland’s largest Covid-19 surveillance study this autumn.

The research programme is being held with a view to developing an ongoing early-warning system for this age cohort, which has had the highest incidence rates of the disease.

Four universities – TCD, UCD, NUI Galway and UCC – are taking part in the study, each of which will employ different types of tests for Covid-19 and use random testing and serial testing.

The research programme, headed by Dr Breda Smyth, director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, will look at the benefit of continuing surveillance for Covid-19 among this age group, even in a fully vaccinated population.


Dr Smyth said the overarching aim of the programme has been to try and develop a surveillance system on Covid-19 in university settings..

‘High connectivity’

“Prior to this, particularly in the west and in other universities, we had some very large outbreaks in university settings.

“That was consistent with the fact that the age group of 18-24 have had the highest incidence of Covid-19 during the pandemic and during all the waves.

“So it’s not surprising to expect outbreaks within a setting where you get very high connectivity in the population.”

Dr Smyth envisages that if the research findings are robust, the system will be developed over time for the overall health system, not just for university settings.

“Like influenza, it develops into a surveillance system where you are constantly monitoring it to see how it behaves with each season or each cycle,” she said. “Even though we deliver flu vaccines, there is continual flu surveillance within health protection systems. It is possible that in the future we will need ongoing Covid surveillance systems.”

Saliva analysis

The four universities were chosen on the basis they had already engaged in some element of testing for Covid-19.

In NUIG, Prof Charles Spillane had developed a rapid PCR test based on saliva testing. In TCD, Prof Orla Shiels and Prof Kingston Mills had developed a LAMP test (a nucleic acid amplification test). In UCD, Prof Grace Mulcahy had carried out antigen testing in meat plants, and UCC had done some testing using both PCR and antigen methods. *

Dr Smyth said subjects would take two random tests per week for a fortnight. The results would be compared with a group that would be serially tested twice a week for eight weeks. Each participant would provide saliva and also carry out an antigen test.

“We want to find out is it easier for a bunch of students to drop off a saliva sample in the morning or is it easier to sit at the table and do an antigen test?” said Dr Smith. “What do they find more acceptable and feasible?”

* This article was amended on August 27th, 2021

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times