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Northern Ireland’s universities, with support from the Public Health Agency (PHA), have launched a pilot testing programme which will screen a limited number of university students not currently experiencing COVID-19 (coronavirus) symptoms for infection by the virus and for antibodies indicating past exposure.

Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast will host PHA testing units on site at various campus locations in Belfast, Coleraine and Derry-Londonderry during week commencing Monday 10 August. This screening will be available to asymptomatic university students only and is distinct from the PHA’s public testing programme for COVID-19, through which everyone in Northern Ireland with symptoms of COVID-19 is eligible for a free test.

The pilot testing programme’s findings will inform the ongoing development of the PHA’s mobile testing programme, which is part of a national testing initiative, and help ensure a robust public health response as we move through the next stages of the pandemic. Results will also help the PHA understand current levels of COVID-19 within the student population and examine the extent of previous immune response.

On-campus testing of asymptomatic students as part of the pilot testing programme is not being carried out in response to any cases of the virus but rather as part of a planned initiative supported by the PHA.

The test will involve a self-administered nasal swab test, which checks for COVID-19 infection, and a blood test which will check for antibodies indicating past exposure to the virus.

Dr Gareth McKay, Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Queen’s University Belfast project lead, commented:

“At Queen’s we are committed to playing our part in the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic – both through our research and through working in partnership with other public bodies. We are therefore pleased to collaborate with Ulster University, with support from the Public Health Agency, in this exploration of COVID-19 exposure in the student population. Our findings will help advance our understanding of the epidemiology of the virus and, importantly, guide ongoing public health planning, ultimately benefiting our university communities and the wider community here in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Elaine Murray, lecturer in Stratified Medicine and Ulster University project lead commented:

“As we prepare for semester one of the new academic year, this important testing programme in both universities supported by the PHA will give us a good indication of how our student population has responded to the virus and of those who have been exposed, the data collected will help us understand their experience of symptoms and their level of antibodies and immunity. Both the COVID-19 nasal swab and the antibody blood test will be conducted on site by medical professionals and take approximately 30 minutes; results will be returned to students within 24 to 48 hours via text or email.”

Students at both universities have been contacted via their student email account with an invitation to book online if they wish to volunteer for one of the limited number of tests available.

Dr Brid Farrell, Assistant Director of Service Development at the PHA, said:

“We have seen how mobile testing units have allowed us to increase capacity for testing throughout this pandemic, and now through this pilot testing programme, we’re seeing how they can be used to enhance the knowledge of the activity of the virus. Through this partnership with QUB and Ulster University, we’ll be testing asymptomatic students to examine the presentation of the virus within this cohort, and also testing these students for COVID-19 virus antibodies, helping us determine if they have already had the virus. It’s important we all work together to better understand this virus and help stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The mobile testing units will be hosted on the Queen’s University Belfast campus from Monday 10th - Wednesday 12th August before moving to Ulster University’s Coleraine campus on Thursday 13th August and Ulster University’s Magee campus on Friday 14th August.

Admittance to the testing facility will only be granted on presentation of an online booking reference and valid student ID. To help reduce unnecessary travel, students from either university will be tested at their closest campus location.