U of I to expand COVID saliva testing nationally


CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — The Executive Committee of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees created a new university-related organization as part of a broad effort to expand the reach of saliva-based testing pioneered by U of I researchers that supports widespread testing with rapid results to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Known as Shield T3, the new organization will make the technology available nationally and was established in response to inquiries from universities and institutions across the country. Interest surged after researchers in Urbana-Champaign unveiled the technology to promote safety when on-campus instruction resumes later this month. Since then, it has been expanded to the U of I System’s universities in Chicago and Springfield.

Along with the new university-related organization, the U of I System has already created a new internal unit that is working to make the tests available in Illinois. The unit, known as SHIELD Illinois, will continue building current testing capacity, and hopes to ultimately offer testing to institutions and entities across the state.

U of I System President Tim Killeen said the initiatives reflect a commitment that the university system has carried for more than 150 years.

“We were created to serve our state and our nation, a role we have filled with distinction during the COVID-19 crisis, from leading-edge epidemiological modeling to front-line care at our healthcare enterprise in Chicago,” Killeen said. “Expanding our breakthrough, saliva-based testing will be a real game-changer, providing fast and efficient results that will protect lives and livelihoods.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker praised the U of I System’s innovation, and efforts to spread the groundbreaking technology across the state and beyond.

“The University of Illinois is living up to its reputation as a world-class research institution, with these promising innovations in rapid saliva testing during this pandemic,” Pritzker said. “I’m proud of their effort and what they have achieved so far, and look forward to what this promising breakthrough can mean for our state and the world.” 

The new initiatives grew from the breakthrough SHIELD program developed by Urbana-Champaign researchers. The name is a reference to their efforts to shield the campus community from the COVID-19 virus.

It features a saliva-based test that is easy-to-administer, scalable, sensitive and specific to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The test produces rapid results, at costs significantly below current alternatives such as nasal swabs. Results are available within 2-6 hours rather than three to four days or more. 

The quick turnaround time for test results is a key in curbing the virus, allowing isolation early enough to limit spread of the infection as well as narrowing down past exposure to allow more-effective contact tracing. It also identifies and isolates people with asymptomatic cases who would otherwise spread the virus unknowingly.

SHIELD gave rise to the new university-related organization created Monday, Shield T3, which will take the program nationwide. The name is a reference to the strategy’s three-part approach – targeting, testing and telling – and the new organization will operate independently from the statewide SHIELD Illinois program.

Shield T3 will operate as a limited liability company and will be governed by a nine-member board of managers. Board members will be designated by the U of I Board of Trustees based on recommendations from the system president and the Urbana and Chicago chancellors. Staff will be named promptly after the entity is officially formed.

The statewide program, SHIELD Illinois, is already working to increase current testing capacity to serve institutions and entities in Illinois that have expressed interest in the new technology.

Student fees

The Executive Committee also approved a resolution that gives the U of I System’s three chancellors the authority to reduce student fees for the 2020-21 academic year, as needed.

Fees were set in January, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing crisis could impact some of the services they fund, such as student recreational facilities. The resolution gives chancellors the authority to reduce fees, working in concert with the system’s leadership team.

The Executive Committee currently consists of board Chairman Don Edwards and Trustees Patricia Brown Holmes and Ramón Cepeda. It acts with the full authority of the Board of Trustees, and Monday’s action will be reported to the full board at its next regularly scheduled meeting, Sept. 10.

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