Strength in Numbers

A university-wide COVID-19 testing procedure can lead to research that could make testing more accurate.

NYU Abu Dhabi is implementing a university-wide COVID-19 research study  to estimate the prevalence of asymptomatic coronavirus cases and ensure the protection of the community.

In July alone, the program ran over 600 tests and plans on turning the pilot into a full-on screening program for the fall semester.

In collaboration with the Biology Department, the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, the Public Health Research Center and the Health Center, the overarching goal of the project is to conduct research and contribute to the wider battle against the disease.

“We’re finding out with COVID-19 that there is a significant amount of asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic and pauci-symptomatic spread. Doing diagnostic testing after someone has already become symptomatic will cause us to miss cases that could prevent its spread,” said Ayaz Virji, director of the Health Center.

To avoid that, the research team is implementing what is known as an active screening method, different to the passive screening procedures many countries have implemented until now. Currently, the overarching philosophy in country-wide testing protocols is to only test when needed and most commonly after symptoms arise or when individuals are exposed to infection.  

This is known as the passive testing method. The danger in this approach is that those who have the virus but do not display any symptoms are placing the general population at risk. 

Many of the issues stem from the prevalence of asymptomatic individuals and the problem it poses in the current testing protocols used around the world. 

The team promotes the idea that screening programs should be moving towards active testing protocols and regular testing, whereby larger sample sections of communities are tested regardless of symptoms to provide an indication of infection rate. The research study will continue to test in this way to provide data on the prevalence of asymptomatic cases and ensure the health of the community..

Kristin Gunsalus, professor of biology, and co-director of the Center for Genomics and System Biology, said the project could prove to provide insight into testing protocols that would be less invasive than the nasopharyngeal swab that is being used around the world.

“We have optimized the protocol to increase sensitivity significantly and we also are using a system that can reduce costs by perhaps an order of magnitude,” said Gunsalus,  who is also the NYUAD faculty director of bioinformatics.

The project will provide research into how to better improve the testing procedures that could be extrapolated to the wider country, and potentially the world. But for now, the focus is to provide the safest possible environment for members of the NYUAD community.

“This project is providing valuable insight into testing protocols but it is also very important to our community. Early detection of potential infections enables efficient public health response and we have measures and protocols in place to keep individuals and the community safe,” Youssef Idaghdour, assistant professor of biology.

The team will continue to analyze the data and are working on validation of testing using saliva which will reduce cost and offer an improvement over current protocols because people can collect their own samples with minimal discomfort.