Universities, students, Covid-19 and the science

A couple of bits of research have emerged that seek to answer an ongoing question - did bringing students back to campus “cause” infection out in the community?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

First up – the University of Cambridge has been working with researchers at the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) to track how infections spread among the student population.

COG-UK has been busy analysing virus samples from students identified as positive through the university’s testing programme and comparing them to samples taken from people in the wider Cambridge community. We now have their interim report (it went into SAGE a few weeks back) which covers the first five weeks of term – and it’s good news.

A small number of transmission events early on were likely responsible for most of the infections at the university, and they found little evidence of substantial transmission of the virus between students and the local Cambridge community in that period.

Important not to crack the champers across the sector, though. One of the reasons why the research was possible was the university’s asymptomatic screening programme, which has been using a “pooled sample” approach to screen about 2,000 students a week from the 12k or so that signed up to participate. In the first weeks of term, one or two students from each “household” were tested each week and where positives were found, other measures to contain kicked in.

In other words, the results on transmission to the community might tell us something about whether student to community transmission is a big issue. But it might also tell us about how important high participation population screening with rapid follow up to contain is. And it might also tell us more about how Cambridge students live, where they live and who they mix with than it tells us about student-community transmission more generally.

Meanwhile a new journal article in Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering seeks to answer the question – are college campuses superspreaders? To figure this out the researchers used a mixture of detailed infection data and modelling from 30 universities – and the results make for grim reading.

Of the 30 institutions, 14 displayed a spike of infections within the first two weeks of term. And once this had happened, most of them were then able to quickly reduce the number of new infections by locking students down, organising food deliveries, and so on.

The problem is that doesn’t mean they were able to control the spread of the virus beyond their own campus. Within just two weeks, 17 campus outbreaks translated directly into peaks of infection within their home counties – and these spread in a way that those universities had much less control over. It brings a new twist to the concept of the “civic university”.

A few other bits and bobs. This preprint (usual caveats apply) looked at the impact of Covid-19 and its lockdowns on students and found that their already inadequate dietary intake, high alcohol consumption, low physical activity and high sedentary behaviour were significantly compounded.

And as the debate continues over whether “lateral flow” testing should be being used in schools and universities, this paper looks at strategies educational institutions can adopt to “safely” reopen – and finds that rapid bulk testing, contact tracing and preventative measures like mask wearing and enforcement of social distancing can allow institutions to manage the epidemic spread.

But a word of warning – the type of test matters. Tests with less false negatives and hitting high participation rates were key, and major question marks remain over each in the case of the schemes up and running at UK universities.

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