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University of Cambridge’s Covid-19 screening and sequencing programme has limited spread of virus

Asymptomatic screening and genome sequencing has helped the University of Cambridge to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among its students.

An illustration of SARS-CoV-2
An illustration of SARS-CoV-2

The university has been offering regular SARS-CoV-2 tests to all students living in its colleges, even if they show no symptoms.

Initial results suggest that the screening programme, together with the university’s public health measures and responsible student behaviour, has helped limit the spread of the virus.

Around 12,000 students living in college accommodation (80 per cent of eligible students) signed up to the asymptomatic screening programme. In addition, the university offers tests to students and staff who show symptoms of potential Covid-19.

The university is also playing a leading role in COG-UK, which is sequencing the genetic code of samples of the virus isolated from infected individuals to help better understand the spread of infection. By comparing the genetic code of samples, it is possible to plot a genetic ‘family tree’ and to say whether two cases are related.

The analysis showed that in week two, 90 per cent of infections were confined to three lineages, showing that a small number of transmission events early on were likely responsible for most of the infections at the university and found little evidence of substantial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between students and the local Cambridge community in the first five weeks of term.

Dr Dinesh Aggarwal, from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge, and a member of COG-UK said: “It appears that a few instances of the virus being introduced to the university account for the majority of cases of established transmission.

“This suggests to us that in most cases, when a virus was introduced, students behaving responsibly and complying with infection control measures helped stop the virus in its tracks.”

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