Biology researchers to study rapid COVID-19 testing on Waterloo campus

Friday, June 18, 2021

As campus is beginning to open more widely, identifying asymptomatic COVID-19 cases becomes more important to help minimize the spread of the virus on campus. Faculty of Science researchers are looking to track the effectiveness of a non-invasive, saliva-based rapid test, while simultaneously testing asymptomatic individuals on campus. 

Professors Trevor Charles and Jozef Nissimov from the Department of Biology, alongside Patricia Quadros and Carly Huitema from the Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research (WCMR) have been awarded $120,000 to determine the effectiveness of a new rapid test and help prevent outbreaks on campus. They will also be determining the virus’s genome sequence to reveal the genetic composition and diversity of the virus, including variants of concern.  

Trevor Charles (Left) and Jozef Nissimov

Trevor Charles (Left) and Jozef Nissimov (Right)

The most common COVID-19 rapid tests currently available use a nasal or naso-pharyngeal swab. The rapid tests being used in this study alternately take a different, less invasive approach using saliva. Another benefit of this rapid test is that it identifies specific genes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as opposed to simply detecting specific proteins, such as the spike protein, that is common with other rapid tests on the market. This allows the team to look at the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and help them identify if there are variants of concern present. 

Participants involved in the study will be asked to provide a saliva sample twice a week, on their own time, and deposit it into a drop-off box on campus. The samples will then be tested for SARS-CoV-2 using a technique called quantitative polymerase chain reactions (qPCR), which detects the presence of the virus's genetic material. Most rapid tests do not use qPCR due to common time and resource constraints. Charles and Nissimov, however, are using a newer qPCR method that not only allows a rapid turn-around time for testing, but also cuts down on costs and makes the test more scalable for widespread use. 

“If a sample comes back as positive, we will then sequence the entire genome of the virus,” says Charles. “This allows us to look at the genetic makeup of the virus, identify if a variant of concern is present, and research how the virus is changing over time.” 

This study will complement other efforts at the University of Waterloo, including another Biology study from Professor Mark Servos that focuses on the detection of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in wastewater, and a similar saliva study done by Professors Dawn Bowdish and Eric Brown at McMaster University

“With the continued reopening of activities on campus over the past few months and into the fall term, we hope that we will ramp up our testing over the summer and into the fall as more faculty, staff and students return to campus,” says Charles. “Once we have concluded the pilot stages of the project, we are also hoping to expand our testing to student residences, with the hope of preventing outbreaks among our student community.”  

With more widespread adoption of non-invasive saliva testing following the pilot study, this would allow for voluntary routine COVID-19 testing of students, staff, and faculty. This will help to curb potential outbreaks on campus and provide confidence for future re-openings on campus. 

This project was funded through a Waterloo Strategic COVID-19 Research Award from Waterloo’s Office of Research. 

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