Weekly asymptomatic screening programme for COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge
Since Michaelmas Term 2020, the University has offered all students living in College accommodation and the majority of students living in private accommodation a weekly PCR test for infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, even if they show no symptoms. In combination with contact tracing and the University’s established testing facilities for symptomatic students and staff, the programme is part of our proactive approach to reducing the risk to students, staff and the local community.
Some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 develop symptoms, such as a high temperature, cough, or a loss or change in their sense of smell or taste. Others show no symptoms at all, and are unaware that they are infected (they are asymptomatic). Nonetheless, we know that they can still spread the virus to others. The aim of the screening programme is therefore to identify students with asymptomatic infection, so they can avoid infecting other members of the Cambridge community.
In practice, participating students use a swab to take a sample from their nose and throat. Swabs are then pooled by household, enabling the University to greatly reduce the number of PCR tests required. If a pooled screening test is positive, students in that household are informed the following morning and offered individual PCR tests to confirm the positive result.
Students with positive individual confirmatory tests (indicating SARS-CoV-2 infection), are then supported in following national guidance on self-isolation. Following alterations to government regulations on 16 August 2021, their household and other contacts will no longer be required to self-isolate, provided they are fully vaccinated.
Participation in the programme is voluntary, but we encourage everyone to take part. The vast majority (almost 90%!) of students in College accommodation (as well as many in private accommodation) agreed to participate during the 2020-21 academic year. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do join them!
Because we use PCR tests and a two-step testing strategy (with separate pooled screening and individual confirmatory tests), you’re exceptionally unlikely to need to self-isolate, unless you are genuinely infected. And, if everybody takes part: more screening = less transmission = fewer cases = less self-isolation!
High levels of participation therefore help keep you, your friends and colleagues, and the wider community safe, whilst reducing the risk of outbreaks and helping to limit disruption of University life. This is especially important for the more infectious ‘delta variant’, which can still be transmitted in populations with high levels of vaccination, and for people who remain vulnerable to COVID-19 despite being vaccinated themselves.
What to expect and how to take part
The following film shows you how to take your swab and what to do with your sample.
- What to expect from the screening programme in Michaelmas Term 2021 (PDF)
- How to take your pooled screening test - updated protocol (PDF)
- How to register your kit in Michaelmas Term 2021 (PDF)
- Swab days in Michaelmas Term 2021 (PDF)
- Updated information for pool leads (PDF)
- How to take your individual tests - updated protocol (PDF)
- Drop-box locations for individual confirmatory test samples (PDF)
- Graphical overview of the screening programme in Michaelmas Term 2021 (PDF)
Please note that these reports are compiled on a weekly basis, and case numbers may change rapidly (even day-to-day) at the start or end of an outbreak.
Michaelmas term 2021
To find out how the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme was set up and run and to see its impact, visit:
- Safety Screens: How COVID-19 testing is helping keep Cambridge students - and the wider local population - safe
- How mass testing helped limit the spread of COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge
- Mass testing of university students for COVID-19 (BMJ)
Data from the programme have been summarised in two manuscripts:
- Warne, B, et al. Feasibility and efficacy of mass testing for SARS-CoV-2 in a UK university using swab pooling and PCR
- Aggarwal, D, et al. Genomic epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 in a UK university identifies dynamics of transmission
Note: These documents relate to the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme as it was launched in Michaelmas Term 2020. Since then, there have been various refinements to the operation of the programme, described in these web pages, including updated protocols and answers to FAQs. These documents and webpages should therefore be read together. The legal framework in which the programme operates, including all the substantive privacy/data protection implications, remain as described here.