Pilot antigen testing programme starts in Irish universities

Harris believes programme can contribute to wider reopening of colleges

Trinity College Dublin is one of four colleges around the country where the pilot testing programme was getting under way on Monday. Photograph: iStock

Trinity College Dublin is one of four colleges around the country where the pilot testing programme was getting under way on Monday. Photograph: iStock

 

Large-scale antigen testing has commenced in four Irish universities to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 among students and staff, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has confirmed.

Mr Harris will bring a memo to Cabinet tomorrow informing it of a significant increase in on-site college screening from September, with thousands of students and staff undergoing regular testing. If the results of this comprehensive exercise are encouraging, rapid testing will be rolled out in all third-level institutions.

The project, which will be called UniCov, will involve a large-scale comparative analysis of rapid testing technologies for use in monitoring and preventing the spread of Covid-19 in education settings.

It has started today across four universities – NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD), University College Cork (UCC).

The commencement comes after a pilot scheme in the four universities using different forms of rapid testing, and also different methods of taking swabs. Besides antigen testing, TCD also conducted LAMP tests, which are a rapid PCR-type test.

While other Ministers have shied from using antigen testing as part of their reopening strategies, Mr Harris has publicly expressed a willingness to test the efficacy of antigen testing as a screening and monitoring tool on third-level campuses.

“Rapid antigen testing may potentially be an element of this system. If proven through piloting and feasibility, the benefits of rapid testing could be a significant additional tool in our fight against Covid-19. It does not replace the public health advice,” he said.

“Thousands of students and staff will participate in the study. It will be optional but I really would encourage staff and students to participate and help us with our plans for return to college and help us learn more about rapid testing.”

 UniCov will explore rapid antigen testing and saliva-based nucleic acid testing to develop integrated surveillance systems to assist the safe and sustainable re-opening of campuses. It is led by Professor Breda Smyth, NUI Galway and Director of Public Health, HSE West.

Professor Smyth said on Monday that students in Ireland had shown significant resilience in adapting to the challenges that Covid-19 has created.

However, she also pointed to international evidence highlighting adverse effects including reduction in academic performance, social isolation and deteriorating mental health and well-being.

“UniCov will inform surveillance systems to support the provision of safe campus environments and provide evidence to facilitate return to campus activity for staff and students in Further and Higher Education Institutes,” she said.