Analysis: On-campus rapid testing next year

Rapid antigen testing could help get students back on-site says provost-elect

Provost-elect Linda Doyle, in an interview on RTE Radio 1 earlier in the week pointed towards the possible introduction of rapid Covid-19 testing on campus next year. In the interview, Doyle expressed that she was “hopeful” about students returning to campus in September, and indicated that the introduction of rapid testing could “effectively” help in this effort. 

On April 1, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly published an Expert Report of the Covid-19 Rapid Testing Group. The report suggests conducting widespread pilots, or feasibility studies of rapid tests in third level institutions. Minister for Higher Education, Research and innovation Simon Harris showed his support for the possibility of these studies, saying “these pilots will provide learning on the potential role rapid testing can play as an additional tool to assist our plans for additional onsite education in the next academic year.” In the same announcement, Harris also mentioned his ambitions to finalise plans to begin pilot testing in four universities.

Trinity is among one of the third-level institutions already conducting pilot screening through the use of rapid antigen Covid-19 tests. Back in September, it was announced that Trinity would be opening a free Covid testing facility on campus, making it the first university in Ireland to do so. The service offered free tests to any student showing symptoms of Covid-19, as well as regular screenings for residents of residents of Trinity Hall, Goldsmith Hall and on-campus accommodation

The regular testing was launched as part of a pilot screening programme which aimed to further the understanding of how the virus can be spread, and how best to control transmission of infection. The study, which was denoted the name ‘Triniscreen’, has since been operating as a voluntary programme which relies on student participation. Students who wish to participate in the tests can provide a saliva sample and deposit it at a designated collection point around College. It is disclosed on the Triniscreen website that students would only receive results if they were positive.

A College spokesperson asserted that College “believe this approach has helped minimise outbreaks on our campus.” They expressed that “consideration has been given to expanding the Triniscreen programme to other cohorts of students.”

The test kits, which are supplied by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to Trinity use the LAMP technique, a method of testing that is now being used more widely in laboratories and industry settings. These kinds of rapid Covid-19 tests detect the presence of antibodies and can provide results in a few hours or less. This method, as well as ‘lateral flow antigen tests’ (LFAT) are being proposed as a way of reintroducing on-campus activities in the academic year ahead. 

It is unclear whether or not these tests will be conducted in a similar way to the already existing screening programme in Trinity, or if the use of LFAT will be introduced. However, Minister Harris has expressed that he is “determined” to roll out these tests across college campuses, stating that getting students back on site is a priority. It has also been indicated that Trinity is in talks with other universities such as University College Dublin (UCD), University College Cork (UCC) and National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), to discuss the possibility of a national-scale Covid-19 pilot study involving multiple institutions across the country. 

With regards to the upcoming college year, Trinity has said that they will continue to take public health advice when it comes to measures that may need to be put in place. However, advances in testing technology and the vaccination rollout suggest  students can have hope in a return to campus come September, although students are also aware that similar hopes of campus returns have been misplaced before in the 2020/21 academic year.

Bonnie Gill

Bonnie Gill is current News Analysis Editor for Trinity News and previously served as the College Correspondent. She is a Senior Sophister Film Studies and English Literature student.