Thanks to everyone for helping with our on-campus asymptomatic COVID-19 testing this term. This has been a huge effort by many and has been the focus of my attention for the last few months. 

We started this testing back in September and it is fair to ask whether it’s worked. So far we have performed nearly 8000 tests on staff and students with over a third of our covid cases coming from this asymptomatic testing route; that’s hundreds of people we’ve found to have the virus but without any symptoms. This is consistent with the national picture with the ONS survey which shows that many healthy people are unknowingly carrying the virus.   

I am particularly proud of the partnerships we have created and fostered as part of this testing. First, we are working closely with NTL Biologica, a local SME with experience and expertise in mobile testing. By working together we were able to quickly put in place the necessary logistics for booking and collecting the viral samples using their distinctive green bus in Mildam. Secondly, we have worked closely with colleagues at Portsmouth Hospital University Trust (PHUT) using their diagnostic lab to process the samples (via PCR) and enter the data into the national NHS Test and Trace. We have also enjoyed a strong collaboration with our local Public Health Portsmouth, sharing information quickly to gain vital advice and understand about how to control the spread of the virus on campus. We will build on these collaborations going forward and they show we can work effectively with both the private and public sector. 

One reflection on the past few months is that nothing stays the same! One big change we made in November was the move to Lateral Flow Devices (LFDs) which are pregnancy-style tests that give results in minutes. These devices detect the proteins of the virus, rather than its RNA, and can be mass manufactured for on-the-spot testing at scale. Our work with NTL and PHUT has demonstrated that when used appropriately, they are almost as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR testing, agreeing in 92% of cases tested in common. The cases that disagree are people with low levels of the virus, possibly pre-symptomatic. This small drop in sensitivity is why the government recommends taking two LFD tests, spaced days apart, to remove this small difference. 

Things changed again this month with the launch of our government-sponsored mass testing site in Spinnaker Hall. This site replaces the green bus – although it is parked outside – and will be with us for some time, both for the departure of students before Christmas and their return in January. We have capacity for over a thousand tests a day and again want to thank all of my university and NTL colleagues in helping to make this dedicated facility possible in such a short time. Please use it! 

I also want to say how proud I am that we (Portsmouth) are helping to shape government planning around student testing. Since October, some of us have been part of an “expert” group of twelve universities working with government officials to help them understand mass asymptomatic testing for the student return for Christmas. Likewise, we have recently engaged with colleagues in the Department for Education, and the cabinet office, over plans for the January return, especially continued use of mass testing. 

So what do I predict for the future of our testing? Well, it will change again and technology and innovation will continue to push for more efficiencies and insights. At Portsmouth I am particularly excited about the new testing and sequencing possibilities based on research by our local RNA experts which should give us a deeper understanding of where the virus has come from, based on viral mutations, as well as actively monitoring the spread through novel, cheap biosensors.

The pandemic has changed the world for many of us including me; I never thought I’d become an expert in these testing technologies! Hope you all get a good end of year break and come back ready for 2021.