The University of Cambridge is to offer all students living in college accommodation a weekly test for infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, even if they show no symptoms. Whilst the testing of asymptomatic students is not national guidance, the University will be launching this programme as part of their ‘Stay Safe Cambridge Uni’ public health initiative.

This screening programme is just one of a number of measures that we are putting in place to keep our University and city safe

Stephen J Toope

When term begins on 8 October, around 15,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students will be resident in accommodation belonging to one of Cambridge's 31 Colleges. To reduce the risk of transmission among the Cambridge community, the University will be launching their own programme to test all of these students on a weekly basis.

Students will use a swab to take a sample from their nose and throat. Swabs will be pooled by household, enabling the University to reduce the number of tests required to around 2,000 per week. For most Colleges, a household will be classified as a unit where students share communal facilities, such as toilets and showers and kitchen facilities.

Samples will be sent to the Cambridge COVID-19 Testing Facility at the Anne McLaren Building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. 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.

Participation in the programme will be voluntary; however, it is hoped that the great majority of students will take part. In combination with contact tracing and the University’s established testing facilities for symptomatic students and staff, the programme will help reduce the risk to other students, staff and members of the local community.

Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “We look forward to welcoming our students back to Cambridge and want to reassure them – and the wider local community – that we are doing everything we can to make sure they feel safe and supported while they are here. This screening programme is just one of a number of measures that we are putting in place to keep our University and city safe.

“Although the programme is voluntary, we are confident that the overwhelming majority of students will want to take part as this will help ensure they are able to enjoy and make the most of the Cambridge experience in the current challenging circumstances.”

A related testing programme has been operating since early on in the pandemic as a partnership between Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University, helping the Trust reduce the risk of hospital-acquired coronavirus infections. It has also enabled staff members potentially exposed to the virus to return to work safely or to isolate as appropriate.

Professor Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge, added: “Offering testing to all students in college accommodation, who make up the majority of our student population, will help us reduce the risk of outbreaks by identifying individuals who will often not be aware that they are infected.”

Due to limited capacity, it is not possible to offer testing to all students. The risk of transmission and outbreaks is expected to be higher in college accommodation, where the density of students and potential for interactions are greater; hence, the programme is targeted at these students.

In addition to the asymptomatic screening programme, the University is providing COVID-19 testing free of charge to any member of the University displaying symptoms, along with members of their household, and any student showing possible symptoms should use these facilities. Testing is currently available at either Addenbrooke’s Hospital or at the Department of Engineering.

Additional information is available on the Stay Safe Cambridge Uni website.

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