Asymptomatic COVID-19 screening programme

Weekly asymptomatic screening programme for COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge

Last updated: 23 October 2020

The University of Cambridge is providing all students living in college accommodation (around 15,000 students) with a 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 other students, staff and members of the local community.

Around half of 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, and are unaware that they are infected at all (they are asymptomatic). Among university students, the rate of asymptomatic infection may be even higher. We know that people with SARS-CoV-2 infection but no symptoms 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 more students or members of the Cambridge community.

Students use a swab to take a sample from their nose and throat. Swabs are pooled by household, enabling the University to reduce the number of tests required to around 2,000 per week. Samples are sent to the Cambridge COVID-19 Testing Facility. If a pooled household test is positive, the students in the household will be informed within 24 hours and offered individual tests to confirm the positive result. Students with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection and their household and contacts will be supported in following national guidance on self-isolation and household quarantine.

While we establish the pooled screening programme and monitor the number of infections, the programme will operate at a reduced scale. We are currently aiming to test every consenting student every other week. In practice, this means half of the students in each household will be tested one week, the remaining half the second week. We are confident that this will allow us to identify the majority of households with infected students, enabling us to quickly put in place measures to limit the risk for further spread.

Participation in the programme is voluntary, but we encourage everyone to take part. We anticipate that the majority of students will want to do so, to help keep themselves, their friends and colleagues, and the wider community safe.

Updates to the screening programme will be made available on this website as they are made. See also our detailed information on the programme.

How to swab

The following film shows you how to take your swab and what to do with your sample.


Weekly report on asymptomatic screening programme

Further information

Reporting symptoms and getting a test

NHS advice: when to self-isolate and what to do

Mike Weekes describes Cambridge's unique testing facility