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Immunology Professor says ‘rapid antigen testing will get students back on campus’

Elizabeth Ryan, Professor of Immunology at the University of Limerick has said that rapid antigen testing will help to get students back on campus.

“I think, to try and get people back on campus, we need to use everything that we can to make it as safe as possible for people,” she said.

She believed antigen testing would reduce the stress of waiting to be tested and getting results in the months ahead.

“PCR tests have to go to a special lab, where qualified technicians process the samples to extract nucleic acids and run the tests which can take hours and isn’t feasible for every student.”

“Antigen tests might take only 15-30 mins for a person to know whether they are contagious and can help to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” she added.

Prof Ryan admitted that these antigen tests were “not always accurate” but she believed in their potential for analysing outbreaks quickly in small classroom settings.

“The antigen test is less technical than the PCR test, not as accurate in detecting the small amounts of virus but is very exact at detecting reasonable amounts in a smaller setting,” she said.

“Imagine if you tested a class, and maybe three or four students were positive with the antigen test, those students then would be picked up quicker and easier to isolate.”

“Those students’ contacts would then be tested with the PCR test and so because of regular testing you can pinpoint potential outbreaks instantly,” she explained.

The immunologist warned against cheap antigen tests, while there were concerns over asymptomatic students leading to a surge of Covid-19.

“The antigen tests that are supplied to students need to be as sensitive and regular as possible because the 19-24 age cohort tend to have no symptoms whatsoever, making them spread the virus without indications,” she said.

“Many asymptomatic people are only detected on a positive PCR test and are usually shocked but on average 2 to 3 days later they develop symptoms. Others are lucky enough to not develop symptoms but are still very contagious,” she added.

She expects universities to allocate students into smaller groups.

“I cannot see any lecture theatres with 300 students stuffed into one room but there will be smaller groups for teaching practical module aspects. Online learning will continue and getting as many people vaccinated before September is going to happen.”

“Overall, we need a multi-pronged strategy that includes a rapid testing strategy alongside PCR and vaccinations. Maintaining social distancing, wearing face masks and hand hygiene is crucial until it is fully under control,” she added.

She also expects third level institutes to have a proper testing routine in place that is incorporated into each students timetable, with fines to quell infrequent tests.

“There needs to be a system where on a Monday morning, when you come into UL, before you attend a lecture, the first time slot on your timetable is that you have the test.

“By Thursday or Friday before you go home, you must test at the end of the week. Failure to do so could lead to a fine so it has to be in a student’s routine and timetable.”

RT-PCR COVID Tests - Medical Offices of Manhattan
An example of a PCR test.

However aside from a testing routine, she is also expecting more orientation programmes for first and second year students.

“It has been a very tough year for us all, especially in the first years as they have had to endure no interaction on campus and I think more orientations should happen next year,” she said.

“I know UL has got such bad press but I am inspired by students and how they have handled this whole year and this long lockdown while keeping active and staying connected with others,” she added.

The UL lecturer said that there is confusion when antigen tests are compared to PCR, confirming that unlike PCR, antigen tests detect the live virus, not just the virus’ genetic material.

“Antigen testing combined with a PCR regime is very important to get more people tested regularly but antigen tests are actually meant to disagree with positive PCR results as soon as the person is no longer contagious.

When the goal of testing is to screen seemingly healthy people for presence of live, contagious virus the Antigen tests add a very important screening tool in our arsenal,” she explained.

She also acknowledged the number of private companies who use antigen tests as a tool to prevent infection transmissions while we wait for the vaccine program to accelerate.

“There are several companies who are using these tests and I know Trinity did a large study at the virus reference lab to test different manufacturers kits, because not all kits are as good as each other and a lot of this work has been around since January.”

Although there was a big increase in antigen testing this year, it is likely positive cases could have been far higher without restricted movements and level 5 lockdown, she said.

“Students need to be careful not to change their behaviour or loosen their precautions with a negative result on a PCR or antigen test because those government measures are still crucial to delaying the spread of the virus,” she urged.

“Wearing a face covering regularly, washing your hand at all times and social distancing to decrease the spread of the virus will continue to protect everyone from Covid-19 regardless of any testing,” she added.

She also recommended that testing should be established in schools and workplaces where people are likely to be in groups anyway.

“Any environment with groups of people in small numbers is ideal because the success of testing in our universities will come from catching positive cases that would have gone undetected and isolating them to prevent bigger clusters.”

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