U of I rapid COVID test gains emergency use authorization

The university has already used the tests effectively to keep students in classrooms.

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Rapid COVID test developed by University of Illinois researchers.

Provided by the University of Illinois

A rapid COVID-19 saliva test developed by researchers at the University of Illinois has gained emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, university officials announced Monday.

The test was developed not for individual use and will not be for sale on drugstore shelves, but was designed for large-scale use by universities, municipalities and companies to allow for constant testing, low positivity rates and the avoidance of shutdowns.

The University of Illinois rolled out the testing platform — known as covidSHIELD — on its Urbana-Champaign campus last year and kept positivity rates under 0.5%, allowing school officials to maintain in-person learning. 

The University of Illinois set up testing stations around the campus and conducted more than a million tests. After a test subject “dribbled” saliva into a tube (no spitting to avoid aerosolizing the saliva), samples were shuttled to a lab via golf carts, according to Martin Burke, a chemistry professor who heads up the university’s SHIELD team.

Results were accessed via smartphone app within 24 hours and were necessary to gain access to campus buildings.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has allocated $20 million in federal COVID relief funding to make sure the testing platform is available to all 12 of the state’s universities and 48 community colleges. 

University officials created two units to share the testing protocol: SHIELD Illinois, which focuses on expansion within the state, and Shield T3, a university-related organization deploying the saliva test outside of Illinois.

“Interest in Shield T3 and requests for our help have been pouring in from around the globe,” said Bill Jackson, interim executive director of the Discovery Partners Institute, who works closely with the separate Shield T3 unit. “This important step simplifies the process of setting up labs and gives our partners added assurance.”

Tests will be available for $20 for public schools and universities, $25 for private universities and municipalities and $30 for private companies, according to Jay Walsh, U. of I.’s interim vice president for economic development and innovation.

The tests are “highly accurate” with 98% of results mirroring the results of nasal swab testing — the gold standard, Burke said.

He said the SHIELD name had nothing to do with Marvel Comics.

“That’s not where it came from, but it works,” said Burke.

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