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October 15, 2020

University of Illinois creates rapid saliva test for COVID-19 virus

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I-COVID, a rapid saliva-based test for the COVID-19 virus that was developed at the University of Illinois, has been approved under the Federal Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization.

The test does not involve collecting a nasopharyngeal swab sample, instead requiring only a small amount of saliva in a sterile test tube. I-COVID takes hours to yield results, which means the test is cheaper, faster, and easier to scale than other testing options.

The I-COVID test was a universitywide effort, but the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory played a major role in making the approval happen.

Dr. Fan
Dr. Tim Fan, a clinical professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Illinois, organized an event in August to recognize the team from the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory devoted to testing COVID-19 samples. (Courtesy of U of I)

Dr. Tim Fan, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the veterinary college, said veterinarians have been central in this process. Dr. Fan also spearheaded setting up the I-COVID testing laboratory in collaboration with Dr. Rick Fredrickson, the director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and Dr. Leyi Wang, a veterinary clinical assistant professor who is an expert in animal coronaviruses and virology.

“We developed this method through the hard work of hungry scientists who were from engineering and some from veterinary medicine,” he said. “We began to seek out how we could bring the method into clinical translation. How do we help people? That required us to establish a lab so we could run a lot of tests on a daily basis, and really the only option was to include and leverage the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.”

In April, university administration members developed the Shield initiative in an effort to address potential spread of COVID-19 to faculty members, staff members, and students. The Shield team is also working closely with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area of Illinois, where the university’s main campus is located, to perform contact tracing and encourage isolation for individuals who test positive. The university announced the creation of the Shield T3 organization—with T3 referring to target, test, and tell—to make the I-COVID test and data technology more broadly available.

“This pioneering technology is a game-changer that will help safeguard lives and livelihoods across the country,” said Tim Killeen, president of the University of Illinois System, in a university press release. “It is one of many breakthroughs that the U. of I. System’s world-class researchers have contributed to the battle against COVID-19, a battle that we are proud to help lead.”

The university collects samples from students, staff members, and faculty members and then funnels them through the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to be tested with I-COVID. The University of Illinois has performed more than 50,000 tests since making I-COVID available in July through mid-August and expected to test 20,000 people a day during the fall semester.

Dr. Fan said many veterinarians were involved in testing I-COVID and running I-COVID tests.

“I think we should be so proud of how veterinary medicine has contributed to this very important issue,” he said.

At press time in September, the University of Illinois had seen a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus after fall classes began. Nearly 800 people had tested positive for coronavirus. The university said it planned to increase its contact tracing and apply stricter penalties to students who break social distancing rules.

During a virtual news conference at the end of August, Provost Andreas Cangellaris said the university was prepared to revert to remote learning if case numbers didn’t decline.