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Scientists hope Covid-19 test for ‘silent spreaders’ could be used for schools

PUBLISHED: 13:43 30 September 2020 | UPDATED: 13:43 30 September 2020

Covid-19 test box used for tests at the University of East Anglia. Inset: Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. Picture: Earlham Institute

Covid-19 test box used for tests at the University of East Anglia. Inset: Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. Picture: Earlham Institute

Earlham Institute

Scientists behind groundbreaking swab tests used to check University of East Anglia students for coronavirus are hoping they will be able to extend their use - including, potentially, to schools.

Covid-19 test boxes are being used for staff and students at the University of East Anglia. Picture: Earlham InstituteCovid-19 test boxes are being used for staff and students at the University of East Anglia. Picture: Earlham Institute

Researchers at the Earlham Institute on Norwich Research Park had been trying to convince the government that weekly tests on everyone in Norwich could help identify silent spreaders - people who have Covid-19, but no symptoms.

Over the summer, a pilot project done by the Earlham Institute, the University of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory saw hundreds of people on Norwich Research Park tested.

And, with UEA students returning, voluntary tests are being offered.

People collect a test kit from campus, self-administer a swab test and return it. The team aims to return test results within 24 hours, so people who test positive can self-isolate.

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Prof Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute, says such testing of asymptomatic people is key to preventing the spread of the virus - and hopes the Norwich programme can be extended.

He said: “We know where the potential outbreaks are - it’s food processing factories, universities and schools. There’s the potential that we could offer some testing in places like schools, through working with public health.”

Prof Hall said the response to the virus had been too centralised so far and said: “The hope is that we can come together to provide support for public health locally, because they are the ones who know where the issues are.”

People are keen to see theatres and live music venues reopen, but Prof Hall said his tests would not be the solution to allow that to happen.

He said: “There are more rapid tests becoming available, but the problem is the logistics. If it was a theatre or venue of 200 to 300 people, it’s potentially a way forward, but it wouldn’t work for thousands of people at football matches.”

“It is not straightforward. “Where do you put people while you wait for the test result? And another key question is who would pay for it? If they cost £20 a go, would venues be able to afford to pay for them or would people be prepared to pay that on top of their ticket price?”


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