EDITOR'S NOTE: This release was updated on Oct. 29, 2020, to add the name of the labs and to update the number of tests expected to be processed each week.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As part of its ongoing efforts to manage and control COVID-19 on its campuses, Indiana University has started operating its own labs for COVID-19 testing. Since the university first started mitigation testing -- sometimes referred to as surveillance testing -- with its students, faculty and staff in August, tests were completed on campus and then sent to a third-party lab for analysis and results.
The new IU Pandemic Response Laboratories, in Bloomington and at the IU School of Medicine on the IUPUI campus, will be able to run the tests and provide this analysis. IU has been doing about 15,000 tests per week since the fall semester started. With the new labs online, the university will be able to complete 25,000 tests per week with the ultimate goal of doing 15,000 tests per day.
"We know the mitigation testing we've been doing on all IU campuses is a key piece of keeping cases low in our campus communities and maintaining the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff," said Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of mitigation testing, and professor of pediatrics and health outcomes research leader at the IU School of Medicine. "With these new labs, I'm excited to be able to further enhance our mitigation testing with more frequency and including a larger number of people in each week's sample group."
The labs are overseen by IU School of Medicine faculty members Aaron Ermel and Gail Vance and IU Bloomington faculty member Craig Pikaard. Trained lab staff will work with a variety of technology in the labs to analyze the thousands of mitigation tests completed each week at IU campuses. Liquid handling robots handle and process the saliva samples collected as part of the tests used during mitigation testing. From these samples, the lab determines if genetic material from the virus is in the sample. If genetic material is detected, the test is positive. If not, the test is negative for COVID-19.
"As we begin processing these tests at the university, our students, faculty and staff will notice much faster turnaround times for test results -- likely 24 hours or less," Carroll said.
Otherwise, he said, the mitigation testing process will remain the same. Emails will still be sent to people selected in each week's testing group, appointments will be need to be scheduled (although now through IU instead of Vault, the previous lab being used), and results will still be sent via email.
As the IU labs expand the number of tests they do each day, IU campuses will shift from Vault to using the IU labs exclusively. Tests from IU Bloomington are starting to be analyzed in the labs now, with tests from IUPUI and the regional campuses starting to use the labs in the near future.
"In addition to the cost efficiencies with operating our own labs, having the ability to run these tests here allows us to spot any trends or potential outbreaks and take appropriate public health actions in a much more timely manner," Carroll said. "Especially with COVID-19 cases increasing across the state and country, this continued testing is one of the best ways we have to manage the virus and hopefully avoid any outbreaks."
The labs will focus on mitigation testing for now but may also move into close contact testing, confirmatory testing for antigen ("rapid") tests and possibly even symptomatic testing in the months to come.