COVID-19 saliva tests begin at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Saliva tests for COVID-19 officially started today for students and staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and more than 200 tests have been conducted so far, according to a university researcher.

"They swipe their ID card, they're handed a tube, and they need to put half a teaspoon of saliva into the tube, then drop the tube and go on their way. So it's a very simple submission process," said Prof. Martin Burke, associate dean for research at The Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Prof. Burke said more than 100 people are involved in the university-funded testing program, which is currently seeking federal approval. The goal is to start the fall school year with widespread testing available for thousands of students and staff members.

"We're optimistic this is going to play a positive role in helping the campus reopen in a more safe manner come fall," he said.

Burke said the university research team is applying for the FDA's emergency approval for the test within three weeks. The process is a key step to make the testing more broadly available.

For now, Burke says the university expects to have 16-20 testing tents when school starts in August.

Officially, a university spokeswoman says they're "still working out the details" on how it's implemented. Right now, testing is voluntary.

So what about a testing program that is university created, studied and tested? Dr. Tracy Koogler, a UChicago Medicine medical ethicists, replied: "I think in today's world it is okay."

Dr. Koogler said medical experts are making decision at a "fast and furious" speed as we try and survive a pandemic.

"Anytime that an institution develops the test, studies the test, and then uses the test, we always worry that there is some conflict of interest," said Dr. Koogler. "In this situation, they are looking for something that they can have rapid turnover so they get results quickly and do a large number of tests quickly."

Test results are sent to your phone. And whether it's available on other campuses, like here in Chicago, will depend on the approval process.

Prof. Burke wouldn't comment on the test's accuracy because they're waiting on other medical experts to review their research.

But the U of I research team does have at least one supporter tonight - Gov. JB Pritzker. The governor's spokeswoman, Jordan Abudayyeh, released this statement about the saliva tests:

"The Governor is proud to see the University of Illinois leading the way in combatting COVID-19, with potentially groundbreaking testing innovations. The U of I is a world renowned research institution that has produced critical advances in medical technology and is home to some of the best scientists in the world. The university is working hand in hand with the IDPH lab and the state of Illinois mobile testing team to collect and run the necessary specimens that are a part of the process to validate their findings and certify that their new testing technology is accurate."
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