Your questions about Northeastern’s coronavirus testing, answered

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern will employ the “gold standard” of testing, along with face masks and daily health checks, to form a three pillar approach to a safe return to campus in the fall, says David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research and vice president of Northeastern’s Innovation Campus.

Free testing for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is an integral component of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, and staff as they return to the Boston campus.

The testing will employ the same technology that was used for the Human Genome Project, a decade-long program of the U.S. government, to which Northeastern was a major contributor, that “actually characterized the genetic makeup of us,” says Luzzi.

Luzzi discussed the university’s testing effort, what members of the Northeastern community need to do to get tested, what the test is like, what happens if someone tests positive, and how the executive order of the governor of Massachusetts regarding travelers from out of state affects students, faculty and staff returning to campus in the commonwealth.

What is Northeastern’s robust testing effort, and why is it so important?

I think everybody can see out in the news, out in the literature, that testing is a major component to safely running society in the presence of a pandemic like COVID-19. And very early on we knew that if we were going to be safely operating the campus that we would have to have a robust testing enterprise.

Now there’s multiple types of testing. There’s viral testing, that is a test to see if somebody actually has the active virus in their body. And there’s serological testing, which is the test whether somebody has the antibodies to the virus in their body. That means they have already had the virus, they’ve recovered, and now they have the antibodies.

There are multiple factors that you have to consider when you consider testing, the accuracy of the test, the technology you use, etc. So we made a decision that the correct way, and this is the way that’s being applied at all universities, at all of the major testing centers like Quest and LabCorp around the nation, at all of the hospitals etc., is to use the gold standard of testing, which is PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, testing of the genome of the virus.

So we are looking for the presence of the RNA because viruses have RNA. And what we do is we transcript that RNA into DNA. And we look at the DNA to prove that the virus is present or to prove that the virus is absent in the sample.

Now, polymerase chain reaction is the same technology that was used for the Human Genome Project, the project that actually characterized the genetic makeup of us. That was a huge program of the federal government for over a decade. Many new technologies came out about that, including Northeastern University research was a big contributor to that back in the day.

So that is the technology that we use. We have built a testing center with a capacity of 5,000 tests a day. That means we can test a large fraction of our population every day. And therefore, we can not only run a frequent testing regimen, where we can know the health status of our community on a continuous basis in the fall. But if we need to, we can even accelerate that testing strategy as facts on the ground require.

Can you speak a little bit more to the general scale of this effort and how we’re leading the way?

Northeastern is one of the leading universities in the world in terms of modeling of epidemics and pandemics. We have a world famous Network Science Institute that looks at the spread of disease as one of the core themes in terms of what this institute studies. It also looks at, for example, the networks that happen within a body, within a cell, within social media and how it influences elections, etc.

But for the pandemic, the Network Science Institute has been involved for a long time in developing the models to successfully model how things spread in a networked world. So if you want to think back to the Dark Ages, when there was bubonic plague and Black Death, that spread because towns interacted with each other. It spread from Asia, across the Eurasian continent, and ended in Scandinavia. It spread four kilometers a day for the entire time that that terrible pandemic went through the world’s population.

A nurse administers a coronavirus tests at Northeastern’s University Health and Counseling Services.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In a networked world where people are flying to different places etc., the spread of disease is different, and that is what we have been at the lead in. So the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the White House Task Force, state governments, city governments etc. depend upon modeling out of Northeastern University.

And the other four universities are the University of Washington, Harvard University, Columbia University and Imperial College in London. Those are the big five institutions with Northeastern that does this modeling for these world-spanning organizations.

So we have applied that capability inside Northeastern also to model how we can approach testing and keeping the community safe in the fall semester.

There are three pillars of which testing is one. The other two pillars are face masks. Face masks make a big difference in terms of increasing the safety posture of a community. So we have a big campaign, we are requiring that people wear face masks on campus. We will have that as a second pillar in terms of keeping the campus safe. And the third pillar is daily health checks. So these are the three fundamental pillars of how we are going about the fall semester–pervasive testing, face mask wearing, daily health check with immediate intervention for symptomatic folks.

Northeastern will provide testing for all of our community members. We have a live question from a viewer who asks how specifically will off-campus students be tested?

Everybody will be part of this testing regimen. Everybody will be required to do the daily health check. Everybody will be required to wear face masks when they are on campus, and in classrooms, etc. So, in that sense, there is really no difference between those living off campus and those living on campus.

So let’s say I’ve just arrived on campus, or you’ve just spoken a little bit about what this might look like for faculty, staff and off-campus students. Where do I go to get my test?

We have actually converted one of the larger gymnasiums on campus, which the students will know as Cabot Cage. And that is going to be the main testing center for asymptomatic–that means people who are not showing any symptoms. There’s plenty of room in there to maintain healthy distancing.

We are building up a scale of operation that we will be able to process people through the testing center very quickly. So the key here is, we have two parameters that we are constantly considering as we think about the fall. One is safe, the other is joy.

If you think about an axis safe and joy, we want to be in the upper right, which is high safety, high joy. And we recognize that testing is very important for safety on the campus, keeping the community safe. At the same time, nobody wants to have testing taking up a big chunk of their day, which is why we are building up the process to not only process people through very quickly so it’s a minor interruption in their day, but also to process these tests.

Our community members will be tested with what’s called an anterior nasal swab. Can you speak to how this test might differ from others that we might have heard about? What sets it apart?

Anterior nares swabs, which are also called frontal nasal swabs, are the ones that actually only go a short distance into the nose. So the famous ones, the nasopharyngeal swabs, are the long ones that are uncomfortable. Those were the swabs that were first used back in the spring. And places that are still doing that is because they’re using up their stock of these long swabs.

The ones that we are doing and the ones that we’ve already been doing on campus in the summer as we build up and run trials are all the frontal nasal swabs. And we’re going to be doing observed testing. That means students, faculty and staff will come into the testing center, they will get a swab in a vial with a barcode. 

They will go to their testing location in the gym and be instructed how to do it themselves. They’ll put it in the vial, hand it to the health professional, they will exit the gymnasium, and they’ll go on with their day.

You mentioned that these tests are really fast and not disruptive to our schedules either. How long does the testing process take? And how long do we wait for our results?

The testing process should just be a few minutes. And we anticipate that as our population gets more professional about testing themselves, it’ll get even shorter.

Now the test result. We actually have access to an exterior testing capability through the Broad Institute, which is a famous research institute in the Boston area in Cambridge. They promised turnarounds in 24 hours. But as I said before, our prime testing facility is our own testing facility that we have built, where we are anticipating will be able to deliver a six-hour turnaround.

The Massachusetts governor has just issued an executive order with respect to travelers who are coming from out of state. Can you speak to the connection between testing and quarantine?

Let’s recognize that there’s two dimensions to quarantine. Number one is the travel to Massachusetts. The second aspect of quarantine is quarantining of people who are found to be close contacts of people who are found to be sick with COVID-19.

I am talking about the first one, which is the travel quarantine, right now.

The new travel rules out of Massachusetts are that you have to be tested within 72 hours of coming to Massachusetts. The language is a little bit ambiguous. So we have gone back to the state because we want to know–are they saying that you must be tested, that means the test must be administered within 72 hours? Or must you get the results back within 72 hours? Those are two very different things. And of course, given the way testing is going on in the nation, those are somewhat hard things to meet if it’s chosen one way or the other.

The state has ruled that those tests must be PCR tests. That is the gold standard that is the test that we are using, the genomic-based test for the virus that we are using in our testing center.

The state has said for educational institutions, people can come in and be tested immediately upon arrival, or they have to quarantine until they are tested. And, if they have a negative test result, they are released from quarantine. Because we have this robust testing facility on campus that will be spun up and operating by the time anybody arrives, we will be implementing that approach right away.

We are moving to get testing done right away when somebody comes on campus, and then doing the very fast turnaround and results to release them. Obviously if they test positive they would go into isolation and we have that whole system set up.

We have reserved 550 beds in dorms. We have reserved that isolated from other things for anybody that tests positive, where students will have their own bathroom, their own concierge, three meals a day process. We are ready to go.

What if you’ve been tested and have the antibodies? Can you speak to the viability of those antibody tests we hear about so much?

This is the challenge that we have with serological testing. There’s really three antibodies that are tested for — IGG, IGM and IGA — in the body. IGG is the most indicative of immunity to COVID-19, however, the science of how long that immunity lasts is still evolving. So the university is at this point under the policy that we are not accepting serological test results to allow any different behavior on campus. That is daily health check, facemasks, complying with the testing regimen for virus.

We are also monitoring the science as it comes along as well as the public health guidelines. Remember, Northeastern is an advisory organization to the Centers for Disease Control. And the public health guidelines for the United States come primarily out of the Centers for Disease Control.

What plans are in place after a positive test result, whether for the community member who tests positive or for those that they may have come in contact with?

In every state, there’s a legal requirement that every positive test gets communicated to the local public health authority. That will happen. Northeastern’s testing facility is certified by the state, registered with CLIA certification with the Food and Drug Administration, so we have all the certifications. We are a testing facility that can test anybody for this virus.

Let’s say somebody tests positive. For students, they will be moved into special isolation dorm rooms.  The close contacts will be identified through interviewing with that student. And then those close contacts will be instructed to go into quarantine. For the close contacts, we have an accelerated test regimen.

We will test those students again. As soon as they have a double negative, that student will be released from quarantining as long as the public health authorities agree to this regimen.

That is still a conversation going on with the public health authorities. But as soon as we get an agreement with the public health authorities on how to bring our testing regimen into how we handle close contacts and quarantining, we will announce that policy, and that’s the way we’ll run the fall semester.

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