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Boston University Prepares To Test Students, Faculty And Staff For Coronavirus

Boston University is preparing to test students, faculty and staff for the coronavirus.

"We have to have a testing procedure in order to alert people who affected or people who are exposed to people who are affected as soon as possible," said Catherine Klapperich, Director of BU's Laboratory for Diagnostics and Global Healthcare Technologies.

President Robert Brown has said he hopes to open the campus to undergraduate students by the fall semester.

"Because we're such a big community and we have a lot of of students that live in housing, which is close conditions — so a lot of them have roommates, several students on a floor will use the same restroom — simply isolating people is not possible," she said.

BU has 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. The university also owns the broadcast license for WBUR.

BU is setting up an RT-PCR test. It's the gold standard for assessing whether or not the virus is in someone's nasal passages or throat.

False negatives — when the test shows that someone does not have the virus when in fact he does — are a problem with all tests, but Klapperich said they are much less of a problem with an RT-PCR test than with other tests.

"We think it'll be a very powerful tool for keeping the community safe," Klapperich said.

BU is still trying to figure out how people will take the test. The university is planning to use a simple nasal swab collected by the person taking the test or a saliva test. That person would drop off the sample at a central location on campus. Klapperich said the university is aiming to have results within 24 hours.

BU is planning to do thousands of tests a tests a day. If the university can meet its needs, it hopes to expand testing for other universities or the city of Boston.

At an online forum Wednesday, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun said his school would also conduct its own testing.

The university is buying seven robots to speed up testing. Some robots will extract the viral genome from a sample. Other robots will  set up the test, putting chemicals into the sample to detect whether the virus RNA is there. The final step of the test is to turn on the heat so that the enzymes can replicate any viral genome that might be in the sample to tell whether the person has a positive or a negative test.

BU Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Doug Densmore, an expert on liquid-handling robots, is leading up that part of the project.

Klapperich said BU's goal is to get through federal and state approval by late summer. She expects to test small numbers of students, faculty, and staff by late July or early August.

"Our goal is to have enough testing to start the fall semester with testing available for those that want it," Klapperich said.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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