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UoA Covid-19 test results in doubt

As live teaching hangs in balance, Butchart analysis is slammed by study

By: Jake Roslin

Screengrab from UoA Covid-19 testing procedure video.

Students who took Covid-19 Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) at Aberdeen University prior to Christmas travel may have received inaccurate results, it has emerged.

The revelation comes as universities in England have been told by the UK Government to suspend face-to-face teaching until 22 February, with a statement from Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish institutions expected later this week.

Thousands of Aberdeen University students were administered two LFT nose and throat swab tests between 30 November and 18 December at Butchart Sports Hall, with Aberdeen being one of around 100 UK universities to set up a pre- and post-vacation screening centre.

However, as part of a study at Birmingham, one of the other universities to employ the same method of testing, students who had taken an LFT test were re-tested using the ‘gold standard’ DNA-based PCR (Polymerise Chain Reaction) test for the virus. This showed both false positive and false negative results had been given under LFT.

As the same test was used by every university, some Aberdeen students may have inadvertently travelled with the coronavirus after being told they did not have the virus, and others may have self-isolated and stayed in the city unnecessarily.

In the study, scientists used PCR to re-test 712 of the 7,189 students who undertook LFTs at Birmingham University prior to the vacation, including two LFT-identified Covid-19 cases from the whole population. This confirmed the two positives, but also picked up six new carriers which LFT had missed.

Dr Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at Birmingham, told Research Professional News that the six extra cases meant Birmingham University might have falsely advised up to 60 students they did not carry the virus, as the sample was 10% of those tested by the Lateral Flow Test. The PCR results also suggested the percentage of Birmingham University students infected by the virus was 0.86%.

The LFT testing kit, manufactured by pharmaceutical multinational Innova Group, has been deployed at schools and care homes as well as universities. It has the advantage of producing results in 15-30 minutes, instead of the few hours to a few days needed for PCR, and is cheaper to buy. PCR tests, required by many travelling internationally, were only available to Aberdeen students privately, with high street pharmacy Boots charging £120.

Dr Deeks also commented on a separate study of 43,925 LFT tests carried out at universities and colleges in Scotland between 30 November and 12 December. In this study, 79 students were tested positive, of whom 31 were re-tested using PCR. This showed 18 of the 31 (58%), all of whom had been told to self-isolate after LFT, to be virus-free.

Deeks suggested a factor in the inaccuracy of the less expensive test could be that students did not always self-administer the nasal and throat swabs correctly. LFTs are ‘not ready, they’re not fit for purpose,’ he said. ‘Not checking whether a test is fit for the purpose to which it is about to be put, is madness and dangerous.’

Meanwhile, the suspension of live teaching at universities in England until at least 22 February comes after University College London, the UK’s largest campus, defied earlier Westminster advice by announcing its own face-to-face classes would be suspended until that date. One other university, York, has already gone further, by announcing its entire Spring Term is now online.

Prior to the latest announcement, social media saw university students complaining they were being ignored by politicians, and were unsure when and how they should return to their term-time addresses.

Announcing the new Scottish lockdown on 4 January, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that current instructions north of the border, for universities to return on a staggered basis between now and early February, will be reviewed later this week. It is widely anticipated that a similar position to England will be taken. The academics’ union, UCU, continue to call for all learning to move online until Easter, saying on 30 December that plans to resume live teaching were ‘doomed to fail’.

Allyson Pollock, Newcastle University’s Professor of Public Health, suggested LFTs could give students false reassurance. ‘Mass testing should be stopped, and sensible advice about symptoms and contact tracing should be given to students,’ she told The Guardian. ‘The Lateral Flow Tests aren’t designed to be used on healthy symptomless people in the community, it says this in the information sheets from the manufacturers.’

Latest daily figures for Scotland showed 2,529 new cases on 5 January with 14.8% of new test results positive. UoA’s reported figures for cumulative positive cases on campus stand at 315 students and 8 staff.

LFTs for returning students are currently due to be carried out at Butchart from 7 January until, provisionally, 7 February. Gaudie News has reached out to the University for their latest position on both testing and the return of students to campus, and we will provide further updates once the situation is clearer.


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