Since the spring semester, the University of Tennessee administration, in collaboration with various officials and expert researchers, has been exploring every possible avenue for preventing the spread of COVID-19 on campus come the fall semester.
Dr. Terry Hazen, governor's chair for Environmental Biotechnology, is one of the primary researchers involved in this preventive effort. One of the methods agreed upon by him and the university was performing surveillance testing on the buildings lived in by student residents.
This form of testing is entirely anonymous, and doesn’t identify any single individual in order to protect student anonymity.
Researchers wearing disposable Tyvek suits will be led by Facilities Services either to a valve in the low part of the building, or in some cases to a manhole on the street, where they will collect three waste-water samples for testing. These samples could be as small as 500 milliliters.
They will then clean the sample, seal it and put it in a secondary container before bringing it back to their approved Biological Safety Level 2 Plus laboratory, where it will be immediately pasteurized in a 60-degree Celsius water bath for two hours.
After running the three pasteurized samples through a centrifuge, filtering them and then performing reverse centrifugation, they will prepare it for real time QPCR/quantitative preliminary chain reaction to identify a specific marker in the COVID-19 genome.
Such tests are designed to allow the team to identify how many virus particles there are in the waste-water at a given period of time, and potentially how many people in the building are giving off those viruses.
“We will also probably sequence the genome using sequencers at Oak Ridge to try and identify different strains -- and the potential dominant strain -- in particular buildings,” Hazen, who has an extensive history in performing this kind of research, said.
If all three tests turn up positive, they will report their findings to the Student Health Center Director Dr. Spencer Gregg and to the Chancellor's Cabinet.
They will also immediately notify their other surveillance lab run by Dr. Frank Loeffler, Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering and Dr. Albrecht von Arnim, professor and associate head for Biochemistry & Cellular and Microbiology.
Loeffler and von Arnim’s surveillance lab will perform an anonymous testing method called pooled saliva testing.
According to Loeffler, their current plan is to test up to 500 students per day. The laboratory will not have any personal student information and will receive tubes with barcodes.
The pooled saliva testing will combine five individual samples into a combined sample, which will then be analyzed. The results will be reported daily to the Student Health Center.
It’s important to note that to protect student anonymity, only the Student Health Center can decode the pooled samples and connect the test results with specific individuals. It is only Dr. Gregg’s team at the Student Health Center who will contact these students for individual testing.
If the team’s goal of 500 samples per day is reached, the laboratory will be able to operate with only two lab technicians and a surveillance laboratory supervisor.
However, if asked, the lab has the capability to increase their daily output to 1,000 samples. If that happens, they would be required to increase their number of lab technicians to four.
Once Hazen identifies a building, Loeffler and von Arnim’s group will immediately call up everyone in that building, and will by floor have them spit into a collection tube.
The pooled samples will help them find which floor has infected people. After that they will notify Gregg’s group and they will perform clinical laboratory industrial action certified testing on everyone living on the positive-tested floor to figure out specifically who is infected.
“That potentially should save us time and money, and that’s why they’re doing this. Waste-water and saliva testing will hopefully keep us ahead of the virus in terms of asymptomatic cases and things like that,” Hazen said.
This same method already allowed the University of Arizona and MIT to identify potential hot zones on their campuses before any individual showed up as a positive case, even if the individuals in question are asymptomatic.
“A substantial amount of logistics is involved.” Loeffler said about managing the collaboration between all the groups.
With all the moving parts, it became apparent that they would require a specialized software to assist them in making sure everything runs as designed.
“We received excellent support from the OIT applications group to build a computer interface that integrates the different steps of process while maintaining sample anonymity,” Loeffler said.
For the time being, however, this software is still under testing to make sure it will run as smoothly as possible.
“Even with this effort, it still is dependent on student, faculty, and staff using their masks, staying socially distanced, and avoiding large crowds and parties and those sorts of things,” Hazen admitted.
As it stands, these laboratories and tests are hoped to be up and running this week so that anonymous surveillance testing can begin as soon as possible to break the chain of infection.
Their hope is to not have to shut down like other universities across the country already have, both for the sake of students and the financial burden it would place on the university itself.