Chris Conlon blog banner with oxford birds-eye view
Chris Conlon blog banner with oxford birds-eye view

Testing the University: A blog by Professor Chris Conlon

Professor Chris Conlon is Professor of Infectious Diseases and the chair of the Health Medical Advisory Group that gives the University of Oxford advice on responses to the pandemic, especially its testing system. He is responsible for a mixture of clinical, teaching, research and administrative duties, including covering the 18 bed Infectious Diseases Unit at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. In this blog, he discusses the ongoing Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service (EAS) at the University.

Reflecting on last term

This year has not started in the way that many hoped – COVID cases are on the rise, hospitals are under huge pressure and a national lockdown is in force for the foreseeable future.  It is worth reviewing what happened last term as a possible guide to how we should approach this term, even allowing for the fact that many students will be unable to return for some time and many members of staff will have to continue to work from home.

Because the vast majority of students and staff took things seriously and followed the guidance about reducing the risk of spreading COVID, the University managed to operate reasonably normally last term. The COVID testing service (EAS) conducted almost 6000 tests, of which 1141 were positive. Of these positive tests, 95% were in students (mostly undergraduates) and only 5% were in members of staff. The enhanced contact tracing done through EAS, the colleges and departments showed that almost all of the cases occurred within households, either within colleges or in private households. Most of these were well contained so that large college outbreaks were avoided. Cases peaked towards the end of October so that by late November there were several days when no cases occurred. The contact tracing team could find no evidence of any cases of student to staff transmissions. There were one or two isolated cases of staff to staff transmission, and no departmental outbreaks. This all shows how effective behaviour change and COVID-secure environments have been. The rates of transmission in the university were lower than that in Oxford city in the general population and there was nothing to suggest that University cases drove any transmissions in the local population.

Minimising the spread

The lateral flow tests that were made available to students planning to travel home at the end of term were used by around 4,500 students. Of the 7300 tests reported, only 28 were positive, with 27 of these confirmed by PCR (one false positive test) – this is about 0.4%. There were a few examples of people developing symptoms within 48 hours of a negative lateral flow test result. This is in keeping with the known low sensitivity of this type of test. This exercise did show that it is possible for individuals to do their own testing, after some training online, and to read and report the results. It also showed the value of a positive test to identify individuals early who are infectious and, hence, minimise risk of spreading the virus.

Dealing with the new COVID-19 strain

The challenge this term is that there is, as has been widely reported, a new strain of the virus circulating that seems to be more infectious than the strain in circulation last term. The new strain is not more infectious because it travels further or behaves differently than before, but it is better adapted to the host so that infected individuals have larger amounts of virus in their noses and throats (hence, likely to be more infectious) and it probably binds better to cells in the nose and throat, so that close contacts are more likely to become infected. This has been shown by more spread within households than seen previously. The higher risk of infection means that it is more important than ever to adhere to the basic principles of minimising contact with others through strict social distancing, hand washing and wearing face coverings.

The new strain is still detectable with the standard PCR test used by EAS, and by the lateral flow devices that are in use. The evidence so far indicates that though more infectious, the virus is no more serious in terms of disease severity, but research is underway to determine this. Early data suggest that the new strain, and the one emerging in South Africa, will be neutralised by the immune responses induced by the vaccines that are being rolled out by the NHS and elsewhere. There is a lot of work going on in Oxford to explore the implications of these new strains.

Remaining cautious as vaccinations progress

The EAS Testing Service started again on January 4th and will continue through the term, offering PCR tests for symptomatic students and staff, with a rapid turnaround time for the results. All returning students will be offered 3 lateral flow tests at the start of their stay in Oxford, with the aim of identifying any positive cases early on so that onward spread can be minimised. Currently, the University is looking at plans to extend asymptomatic testing to key staff who cannot work at home and on whom the University, colleges and departments depend to maintain our teaching and research. There are also discussions about extending the availability of lateral flow tests for students throughout the rest of the term. In the past 2 weeks we have had very few positive cases picked up through symptomatic testing in EAS, and only 7 out of 1970 lateral flow tests have been positive in the last month.

It is hoped that the current lockdown and the rapid roll out of vaccinations will reduce the spread of the virus. However, it remains true that most of us have not been exposed to the virus and most of us are not immune. Thus it remains vitally important that we all follow the health measures in place to reduce transmission.

More information on getting tested at Oxford

Please visit the EAS website to book or report a test. There are no fixed hours for this service, so please check which slots are available when booking a test - times can vary, from 10am to 7pm. You can see the latest data on results from the EAS by visiting the University status and response page.