As University of Arizona students finish the fall semester remotely, they’ll return to more stringent guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the spring semester.
The university will require weekly COVID-19 testing for all students attending in-person classes on its main campus or living in dorms, UA President Robert Robbins said in a press conference this morning.
Any students visiting campus will be required to complete a COVID-19 diagnostic test within the prior week. If students aren’t noted as having completed a test in UA’s system, they will be denied access to the university’s Wi-Fi network.
“We think this is an incentive for people to comply with our mandatory testing,” Robbins said. “We think it’s really going to be important, and we’re changing our approach because we’re going to be able to expand our testing capability.”
Robbins announced a testing blitz to coincide with dorm move-in dates from Jan. 6-12, similar to the one it conducted before fall break. Residents are required to test negatively before moving into their dorm rooms.
While the tests conducted during the testing blitz will still be in the form of antigen nasal swabs, the university has developed a new saline gargle test for its regular weekly testing.
New saline gargle test
Developed by the head of the university’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Michael Worobey, the saline gargle test detects present coronavirus material and amplifies it to a traceable amount.
Those receiving the test swish and gargle 5 milliliters of saltwater three times, and spit the solution into a tube to be tested for the presence of COVID-19.
Instead of the oftentimes unpleasant nasal swab that reaches the pharynx, or deep into the back of the nasal cavity, the swish test is “much more tolerable,” according to Worobey.
When assessing the effectiveness of the test, Worobey said he gave potentially infected persons at UA both saline and nasal swab tests and found the gargle swish test pulled coronavirus material out of around 30-35% more people than the nasal swab.
“I think this is going to become the new gold standard for how to test for this virus,” Worobey said.
He estimates the university can conduct 3,000 saline tests a day for less than $5 a test.
In order for the test to work correctly, those taking it won’t be able to eat, drink, brush their teeth or chew gum or tobacco an hour before taking the saline test.
The new testing mechanism comes as statewide COVID-19 data shows a 14-day increase in COVID-19 cases of 58%, a 94% increase in deaths and a 57% increase in hospitalizations, according to Reentry Task Force Director Richard Carmona.
With news of coronavirus vaccines on the horizon, Carmona said he’s concerned with “conspiracy theorists” pushing false narratives about the efficacy of the vaccines.
“This is a potentially deadly disease, it is not common flu. It is more transmissible, it can kill you, and if not you, a loved one if you’re indiscriminate with your activities,” Carmona said. “For those who don’t believe, look at the numbers.”
Efficacy of upcoming COVID-19 vaccines
UA Associate Professor of Immunology Deepta Bhattacharya joined the press conference to discuss the safety and efficacy of upcoming COVID-19 vaccines.
Bhattacharya explained both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work by inserting a single type of RNA into the body that encodes the spike protein of coronavirus and inserts it into cells using lipid particles.
Once the body’s immune system recognizes the new spike proteins as foreign, it works to generate antibodies and kills infected cells.
Bhattacharya said he’s seen many incorrect theories on social media that may discourage people from receiving a vaccine. He stressed the vaccines’ RNA does not integrate into the vaccine receiver’s DNA and that although the vaccines were developed relatively quickly, they are still safe and effective.
Normally, vaccines go through a long process of research, development and analyzing the cost of administration. According to Bhattacharya, the pre-clinical phase of development for the new COVID-19 vaccines was shortened due to many manufacturers’ preemptive preparation after the first SARS-coronavirus was introduced in 2003.
The vaccines were never rolled out due to the small scale of the spread of the virus in 2003, but “the knowledge was already there,” Bhattacharya explained.
Vaccine manufacturers also had the advantage of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed, a variety of financial incentives that eliminate the interim phases of determining the financial risk of developing the vaccine.
Bhattacharya refuted the claim that there haven’t been enough long-term studies of mRNA vaccines and said while this may be true for coronavirus-specific vaccines, mRNA vaccines treating illnesses such as influenza and rabies have been around since 2013.
“This is going to be the largest-scale vaccination campaign that any of us have seen in our lives,” Bhattacharya said. “One of the things I really want to caution you against is things that we call anecdotal adverse effect stories.”
In a group of 10 million people, 9,500 will be diagnosed with cancer, 4,025 will have a heart attack and 14,000 will die within two months, whether they are vaccinated for coronavirus or not, Bhattacharya said.
“We want to keep in mind here, using the data and the numbers to tell us whether there are actually any effects that are coming from the vaccine or not,” Bhattacharya said. “Anecdote is really not evidence that a vaccine is actually causing something detrimental.”
While the COVID-19 vaccines may cause more swelling than a typical flu shot, both have mild to moderate adverse effects, according to Bhattacharya. The efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine is 95%, while Moderna’s is 94%.
He says the FDA’s formal authorization hearing for the Pfizer vaccine will be held on Dec. 10, and a week later, they will be delivered to states based on their populations.
Healthcare workers will be vaccinated first, and the vaccine will be available to the general public by June, Bhattacharya estimates.
While on-campus UA students are now required to be tested for the virus weekly, they may also be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the future.
“I would like to see us mandate that we all get this vaccine in order to come on campus,” UA President Robbins said.
However, he acknowledges the university still needs to work with its attorneys and develop exemption policies for medical and religious purposes.
Robbins said, “I would very much like to see this be required for everyone who works and comes to the campus as a student.”