UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI’s, Free Asymptomatic Saliva Test, or FAST, study for COVID-19 will end Thursday after having tested more than 4,800 people, according Jennifer Doudna, president and chair of the IGI governance board
IGI now believes swab-based testing may be more effective than saliva-based COVID-19 testing, and it is discontinuing the IGI FAST study to consolidate asymptomatic testing to University Health Services, or UHS, surveillance sites, Doudna said in an email sent to the IGI FAST study participants.
The main goal of the study was to make regular testing accessible to staff, students and faculty who do not have COVID-19 symptoms, according to IGI spokesperson Andy Murdock.
“The IGI and UHS have been coordinating the on-campus testing all along the way,” Murdock said in an email. “Really the biggest concern right now is making sure everyone knows that there are testing options available.”
UHS spokesperson Tami Cate said UHS opened surveillance testing locations Oct. 7 at the Recreational Sports Facility and Memorial Stadium to all students who wish to receive free asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. According to Cate, students can schedule appointments directly through the UHS patient portal and should get tested weekly.
Murdock said in the email that the study collected saliva samples from participants because they can be comfortably collected without a clinician.
“COVID-19 features a lot of people who don’t have symptoms, but they can be very virulent,” said IGI FAST study coordinator Alexander Ehrenberg. “We want to make sure we give them the most accurate test and get them in front of a doctor.”
Murdock noted in the email that the trade-off for saliva specimens was that they were difficult to work with in the lab. According to Ehrenberg, because saliva samples can vary in quality, some specimens cannot be tested. Ehrenberg added that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could be less prevalent in saliva, which could make the IGI FAST study’s test less accurate than swab-based testing.
According to Ehrenberg, the IGI FAST study detected several asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 carriers and, without the study, there would have been more COVID-19 cases in the UC Berkeley community.
Ehrenberg added that it is possible that some community members who prefer saliva testing could opt out of testing altogether if saliva testing is not available.
If the IGI sees an overall reduction in weekly community testing, it will reevaluate its transition strategy, Ehrenberg said. He added, however, that the self-administered nasal swab tests offered at UHS testing facilities are “not that uncomfortable.”
“The research we’re undertaking right now is laying the foundation for improved testing techniques not just for this virus, but for others down the road,” Murdock said in the email. “The establishment of the clinical testing laboratory at the IGI has provided an opportunity for us to focus more research efforts on next-gen diagnostics, including CRISPR-based diagnostics.”