Cambridge studies show higher education ‘can open safely’ during pandemic

Two research papers collate evidence which suggests the university’s testing, isolating and sequencing procedures minimised the spread of Covid-19 last autumn

Two studies published by the University of Cambridge demonstrate the efficacy of Covid safety and testing procedures implemented at the university – and show it is “possible to keep universities and colleges open safely during the pandemic”.

A programme of regular, voluntary asymptomatic screening, infection control measures, and genomic surveillance have limited transmission within the university community and prevented “overspill” into the wider city community, the two back-to-back studies concluded.

The studies analysed data collected during the autumn term last year, between 5 October and 6 December, when the UK experienced a second wave of Covid infections. The research papers – led respectively by Dr Ben Warne from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease and Dr Dinesh Aggarwal from the University Department of Medicine – have yet to be peer-reviewed. The university said it hoped the results would “allow rapid sharing of information that may be helpful for other universities” as face-to-face teaching begins again for all students.

Nearly 13,000 students living in college accommodation participated in the university asymptomatic Covid-19 screening programme, which offered fortnightly screening until 16 November – when UK infections reached a new peak – and the service became weekly. More than four out of five (82%) of all eligible students participated. A separate programme for suspected symptomatic cases supported the asymptomatic programme. Both used the ‘gold standard’ PCR tests to ensure a high level of accuracy – rather than the lateral flow tests used by the government-led asymptomatic programme launched for all students before travelling home for Christmas.

A national Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium sequences the virus at a national level to understand the spread of the infection from person to person. The consortium is run by the University of Cambridge and 11 other universities.

Cambridge-based scientists used samples collected from students, and data from COG-UK, to identify the genetic code of the infections at the university and plot a ‘family tree’ of cases. This research found few related cases between student and staff – suggesting little transmission in teaching settings – or, critically, between students and the local community.

The majority of ‘transmission chains’ were short, the researchers found, suggesting that infection control measures, like symptomatic screening, support for self-isolation and in-house contact tracing, were successful. Seven in 10 student cases belonged to one genetic cluster, likely dispersed at one event such as a party. Most appeared within student accommodation or between students on the same courses.

We need to be cautious about access to certain types of high-risk venues during a pandemic, particularly in the context of a young, susceptible student population
– Dr Ben Warne, Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease 

The lead author of one of the papers Dr Warne said: “There are several takeaways from our findings. First, we need to be cautious about access to certain types of high-risk venues during a pandemic, particularly in the context of a young, susceptible student population.

“Second, the spread of the virus through the university has been effectively contained using a combination of prompt case identification, including asymptomatic screening, and simple infection control measures, such as supporting affected students and their contacts to isolate.”

Dr Aggarwal said the apparent low levels of “overspill” from students to the community, “was reassuring and suggests that, with appropriate precautions, it can be possible to keep universities and colleges open safely during the pandemic”.

“Through COG-UK, the UK has been at the forefront of using genomic epidemiology to inform outbreak investigations,” continued Dr Aggarwal. “With the widespread availability of sequencing, we believe it is a critical part of public health surveillance required to understand SARS-CoV-2 transmission and will be a critical part of future pandemic preparedness.”

Dr Nicholas Matheson, who designed the screening programme, said he hoped his work would “serve as a useful example for other universities and colleges looking at ways to keep their students, staff and communities safe”.

“With the current uncertainty around new variants of concern, and most young adults in the UK – let alone the world – not yet vaccinated, that’s an important lesson about mass testing in general, not just in universities,” he added.

Cambridge University vice-chancellor Prof Stephen Toope commended the achievements of “a dedicated team” that developed the screening, sequencing and infection control measures in “just eight weeks”.

Cambridge Regius Professor Patrick Maxwell warned: “University students are at particular risk of transmitting coronavirus because they live in shared accommodation, and often socialise in large networks.”

But he said the university demonstrated that pooled asymptomatic screening “is feasible and effective, making it possible to keep the number of infections “very low.”

Read more: Cambridge University: ‘Little evidence’ of student-community Covid transmission last term

Image via Flickr

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