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ISU To Set Up Coronavirus Testing Lab

Students walk the Quad
Emily Bollinger
A saliva-based coronavirus testing lab at Illinois State University might hasten the return of student crowds on campus.

The huge gap between the capacity at the University of Illinois and the capacity at Illinois State University to test for the virus that causes COVID-19 may soon disappear.

The U of I at Urbana tests up to 50,000 people per week. ISU tests up to 1,500.

ISU leaders said they will set up a lab in the science lab building on campus, using the U of I Shield Illinois Program model.

John Baur, a chemistry professor and ISU’s COVID-19 testing coordinator, said the U of I saliva-based test for the coronavirus is straightforward. People spit into a tube and technicians heat it in a water bath and run it through an instrument to look for viral RNA.

“This technique called PCR, polymerase chain reaction, amplifies any of that viral genetic material present many, many times and allows you to detect it with a great deal of sensitivity. It’s relatively simple, but it's very precise and accurate as well,” said Baur.

The U of I has claimed its method is more sensitive than the more invasive nasal swabs.

Cornell has a test. Yale has a test. The U of I has a test. Baur said all those rely on similar technology. The U of I test has an advantage for ISU, he said, because there is a system of application with it that has been studied and approved by the FDA.

“The testing process itself is pretty simple. It’s the logistics of handling several thousand samples a day which requires some fairly sophisticated solution handling equipment to make sure you track the samples all the way through the process,” said Baur.

Another technology operates similar to a pregnancy test. People spit on a piece of cardboard and a few minutes later a result or non-result pops up. Baur said that is even faster than the saliva-based method, but uses antigens from the virus, and so is less specific. A positive antigen test requires still another test to determine whether the virus is actively present in a person.

A complication for ISU is gaining a government clinical lab certification lab to produce diagnostic results. Currently, only Student Health Services has a CLIA certified lab for some techniques, but Baur said it could not handle the scale of samples a coronavirus testing program would require.

Baur said the new lab would hold eight to 10 workstations.

“And we expect to have one to two shifts of about six employees each shift doing the testing,” said Baur. “The goal is to get several thousand, so up to 10,000 per day. That’s where the Shield Illinois Program is shooting for their lab capacities.”

The U of I tests all students twice a week and requires certification of a negative result through a phone app to enter campus buildings.

Baur said ISU expects to offer the test to its students at least once a week. Depending on capacity, ISU might test students twice a week. “That’s still under discussion,” said Baur, noting the more often you test, the quicker you catch outbreaks.

“One of the things about the saliva-based tests is that it can produce results much quicker and there is some discussion whether that offsets the need for twice a week, or whether we can do once per week because that is obviously a significant difference in cost,” said Baur. “We definitely want to do what is the safest for the community.”

ISU is not the only customer for the lab. The Shield Illinois system developed at the U of I includes access for different community organizations. Illinois Wesleyan University, Westminster Village, Twin City nursing homes, and major employers in the community also could be included.

Baur said Shield Illinois is reaching out to various stakeholders. He said even if ISU reaches a maximum capacity of 10,000 per day, requests might fill that.

“The fortunate or unfortunate thing is that there is a lot of demand and the higher capacity we have the more we can test and make sure we do as much testing as possible throughout the community,” said Baur.

Shield Illinois divides the state into 11 regions, each with a lab like the one ISU is putting together.

Retirement communities. Nursing homes, and other extended-care facilities around Illinois have complained about the state requirement to test staff. The current testing system is overburdened in many places and test results have sometimes been delayed long enough that they are not useful in containing an outbreak.

Each community organization would have to pay a per-test amount to run the lab, said Baur, adding, “That’s still being worked out,” and is not his area.

ISU began substantive talks with the U of I several weeks ago when the FDA approved the saliva test for broader use.

ISU had not started assembling a lab earlier in the hope it would be approved to shorten the time to deployment.

Baur said the lab will cost close to $1 million.

“One of the issues is the supply chain. The machines and supplies are very difficult to get. The University of Illinois has been working on procuring these instruments. There is a lag time from when you decide to do it and the time you can start,” said Baur.

The Shield Illinois template includes regional capacity sharing if there are surges of COVID-19 in other parts of the state and an increased need for testing.

There is a side-benefit to having the regional lab at ISU.

“From an educational standpoint, it’s a good opportunity for some of our students to get some experience in a production testing lab,” said Baur. “The lead staff have to have certain certifications, but the workers just have to have a lab background so some of our grad students and some of our recent graduates could work in the lab as some of the testing personnel.”

Baur said he hopes to hang onto the genetic sequencing machinery when the pandemic ends. He said building that capacity for academic use would be great.

Baur said the ISU lab remains eight to 10 weeks away because of setup and hiring challenges.

Listen to the complete interview.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.