More than 300 University of South Florida student-athletes and USF Athletics staff members are participating in a feasibility study of the effectiveness of pooled testing for COVID-19, led by researchers from USF Health. The study is one of several university initiatives being implemented to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Each week throughout the fall semester, the individuals will be tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Using this approach follows the American Athletic Conference’s requirement for student-athletes to be tested within 72 hours of competition.
“Finding a timely and affordable solution that matched our conference protocols was critical for us to move forward with our athletic department plans for this academic year,” said Michael Kelly, vice president of USF Athletics. “We are grateful to our partners at USF Health for identifying and implementing this progressive solution. Simply put, they have been amazing.”
Following discussions with the FDA, testing is being completed in USF research laboratories. Saliva samples are being collected and pooled into groups of four. If a pooled test comes back positive, the individuals will be asked to get tested by one of the certified testing sites in the USF area. Principal Investigator Kevin Sneed, dean and professor of the Taneja College of Pharmacy and member of the USF Sports Medicine division, says the USF laboratories now have the capability to provide results within one day, allowing for an infected individual to be rapidly removed from a group and isolated, preventing further community spread.
“This SARS-CoV-2 feasibility pool-testing research project is a very innovative endeavor that supports our student-athletes’ desires to continue competing in as safe a manner as possible,” Sneed said. “It also displays the interdisciplinary translational research prowess of USF and positions us to expand this testing process to the broader USF campus community.”
Distinguished USF Health Professor Thomas Unnasch is testing the pooled samples in his laboratory. His expertise is on the disease onchocerciasis, also known as “river blindness,” and he uses pooled testing on black flies to conduct surveillance in Latin America and Africa, assisting in eradication programs. Unnasch says the method is most beneficial when there is a low prevalence of infection due to its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. His lab will also run tests on environmental samples taken across USF’s campuses. This includes surface samples from high touch points, such as door handles, elevator buttons, faucets and snack machines. People who may have come in contact with a particular location with positive results may then be encouraged to get tested for COVID-19.
“We are hoping that detecting virus on these frequently touched surfaces will allow us to provide a warning of places on campus where the virus is circulating without having to frequently test large numbers of individuals,” Unnasch said.
Participants in the feasibility study have been assigned a bar code, which is part of a new system developed by Alan Ferrandiz, a graduate student in industrial engineering, and coordinated by Jose Zayas-Castro, professor and executive associate dean of the College of Engineering. Results are downloaded into a secured database that allows researchers to monitor the repeated testing and recognize potential changes. Bar codes are also being used for the environmental testing, helping ensure samples are consistently collected from a specific location.
Study participants from USF Athletics are also in the process of being tested for COVID-19 antibodies to see if they’ve had the virus. They’ll be retested at the end of their seasons. Additionally, they’re being asked to complete a behavioral survey produced by Amy Alman and Chighaf Bakour in the College of Public Health. It asks a variety of questions about one’s recent health conditions, their following of social distancing guidelines and their emotional impact. This will help identify any common behaviors in those who may or may not become infected.
The study is scheduled to wrap up at the end of the fall semester, at which point researchers will assess the accuracy and cost effectiveness of pooled testing. Depending on available resources, Sneed hopes to continue the study, focusing on athletes who compete in the spring.