Staff and students in four Irish universities are being urged to volunteer for a pilot antigen testing project that aims to help allow the safe return of college students to campuses.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris is today urging staff and students in NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork to take part in the 16-week pilot scheme.
The project, called UniCoV, will conduct a large-scale analysis of testing technologies for use in surveillance of Covid-19 and prevention in higher education settings.
These will include rapid antigen testing, saliva-based PCR testing and wastewater surveillance.
Wastewater surveillance involves the collection of wastewater samples from each campus site to analyse the presence of the coronavirus.
Those who participate in the pilot programme will have to provide saliva samples twice weekly over the 16 weeks and drop them off at on-campus collection points.
These samples will then undergo PCR or LAMP testing. On the same day, volunteers will take a self-administered rapid nasal swab antigen test, and upload a photo of their result from their phone to the UniCov website.
The aim is that the findings will inform the development of early warning systems for future outbreak prevention and control in universities.
Speaking today, Minister Harris said antigen testing “may potentially be an important element” of allowing the safe return of college students to campuses.
“I recently published Government’s plan for a safe return to on-site teaching, research and study this semester,” he said.
“Rapid testing may potentially be an important element of this plan. This pilot project will help us learn more about different types of tests, how effective they are and if they can or should be used in higher education settings.
“None of these replace the public health advice but could be additional weapons in our fight against Covid-19.”
The Higher Education Minister added that he hopes over 8,000 people will participate in the study, “but of course it is optional”.
He added: “I really would encourage staff and students to participate and help us with our plans for a safe and sustainable re-opening of campuses and society.
"You can sign up at www.unicov.org, it’s easy, it’s secure and you’ll be playing a vital role in our recovery from this pandemic.”
Prof Breda Smyth, who is leading the project, said: “Students in Ireland have shown significant resilience in adapting to the challenges that Covid-19 has created.
"However, evidence suggests both in Ireland and internationally this is not without adverse effects including reduction in academic performance, social isolation and deteriorating mental health and wellbeing.
"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.”