Imperial College London

“Gold standard” COVID-19 tests free for students and staff

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two people at desk with one person in front of desk, all wearing face coverings

A testing session at Woodward Buildings, one of Imperial's halls of residence

Imperial is providing COVID-19 testing to its community.

The College's asymptomatic testing scheme is available free of charge to all Imperial students and staff who are studying or working on campus.   

One in three people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, but they can still pass the virus to others. The College’s scheme aims to identify these asymptomatic cases amongst staff and students before others are put at risk and provides the safety for people to carry on with their lives as far as possible. Thousands of Imperial students and staff have taken a test during the autumn term. This is further to testing for symptomatic people who can be tested via NHS Test and Trace.   

Professor Jonathan Weber
Professor Jonathan Weber

Professor Jonathan Weber, Chair of Imperial’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, said: “Imperial is science-led and we made an early decision to develop an in-house COVID-19 test and trace capacity. We were able to respond so quickly to this challenge by building on our long-established NHS-accredited Medical Diagnostics Unit in the Department of Infectious Disease.

"I believe that our agile response has contributed greatly to ensuring the safety of our students and staff across the College.”   

Imperial’s testing scheme is a key part of its COVID-19 Management Plan, and sits alongside robust safety measures for research, teaching and visiting campus.  

Gold standard tests 

The RT-PCR tests - the recognised ‘gold standard’ for testing, sensitivity and specificity - are processed at Imperial’s Molecular Diagnostic Unit (MDU) lab, which is UKAS accredited.  

Professor Graham Taylor, Professor of Human Retrovirology in Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease, is Deputy Head of the Unit. “The MDU was established to provide specialist diagnostic services for the investigation of infectious diseases," Professor Taylor said.

Professor Graham Taylor
Professor Graham Taylor

"In our initial response to support testing in Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust the MDU team rapidly developed and validated a SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR and Professor Paul Freemont’s team established the robotic platform that is allowing us to test hundreds of samples each day. 

"Most of the analysis is being done by recent graduates of Imperial’s Masters programmes and knowing the impact that each result has is fully appreciated. We aim to balance the need for rapid turnaround, especially for those who have high viral load in the sample, with accuracy and minimize the risk of false positives by retesting any sample that is borderline."

Bringing the tests to students 

Imperial offers tests across campuses and student halls of residence. Students and staff are able to select a location and a 15-minute time slot that suits their schedule, with last-minute tests often available up to 30 minutes before a slot. 

Between 10 November and 15 December, over 7,300 students and staff took a COVID-19 test through Imperial’s scheme. Some of these people will be repeat visitors as routine testing is now encouraged amongst the on-campus College community. 

Successful scheme 

Imperial has seen relatively low numbers of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 across the autumn term. On Monday 7 December over 300 tests were taken, and on Tuesday 8 December, fewer than five students and fewer than five staff reported positive results. The latest figures are available online

Dr Sim Pathak, Imperial’s Lead of the COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Group, Expert advisor to the COVID-19 Operational Group and Honorary Infectious Diseases Consultant at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust,  has been advising on the College’s COVID-19 response including test-trace-contain measures.  

“Further to symptomatic testing, regular asymptomatic testing is key to preventing outbreaks and enabling us to move as freely as possible around College campus and our homes” said Dr Pathak, “And so we encourage students and staff to continue to book regular tests."

Environmental testing 

Alongside the testing programme for staff and students, Imperial also has an environmental screening programme which tests air and surfaces on campus for SARS CoV2 virus, the causative agent of COVID-19, to monitor the level of virus contamination on campus.  

The programme focuses on eleven sampling locations: six buildings on the South Kensington Campus, including the Central Library, and five halls of residence. 

At the most recent sampling date of 16 November, all swab and air samples taken were negative for Covid-RNA. 

Piloting lateral flow antigen testing 

Imperial has also piloted delivery of lateral flow antigen tests for members of the community that do not have access to the RT-PCR testing scheme. Over 650 tests were taken by contractors as part of this pilot, with only six positive results.   

Reporter

Elizabeth Nixon

Elizabeth Nixon
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6699
Email: e.nixon@imperial.ac.uk

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