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Chemistry students lead COVID-19 screenings in Millard Schools

Creighton University campusLittle did Creighton University’s chemistry and biochemistry students dream, just one year ago, that their career decision to study the nature of matter would soon enlist them in a battle to contain a historic virus.

But there they are, in a Millard School District facility, screening hundreds of saliva samples daily to ascertain whether district faculty and staff are harboring SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. The saliva samples are gathered by nurses in accordance with protocols established by Darwin Biosciences, a Boulder, Colorado-based molecular diagnostics company dedicated to improving the way the world manages infectious disease.

CoVLab, the licensed SARS-CoV-2 screening solution developed by Darwin Biosciences, avoids the invasive nasal samples that have become familiar to millions in recent months, instead using saliva samples that are subjected to chemical analysis and produce same-day results.

When the Millard School District, eager to know if COVID-19 would spread among its faculty and staff between Thanksgiving and Christmas, contracted with Darwin Biosciences for testing services, Nicholas Meyerson had to move quickly.

Holding a doctorate in molecular genetics from the University of Texas at Austin, Meyerson is co-founder and CEO of Darwin Biosciences, and the help he needed materialized when his company reached out to Eric Haas, PhD, an associate professor of biochemistry at Creighton.

"Building a lab from scratch in 24 hours and training personnel to receive, process and report hundreds of samples is a unique logistical challenge,” Meyerson says.

“However, the incredible talent and enthusiasm of students from Creighton University made it all possible. Less than a week before operations began, I had the great pleasure of recruiting these students who had been selected by Creighton University professors based on their stellar academic performance and demonstrated work ethic in a laboratory setting.

“Darwin Biosciences could not be more pleased with how this team of students came together at a moment's notice to provide SARS-CoV-2 screening to the Millard School District's faculty and staff.”

Lynne Dieckman, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry at Creighton, worked with Haas to recruit students.

“Dr. Haas and I sent an email to chemistry and biochemistry students who were doing research with faculty members in our department, had good laboratory skills, and would be really excited to get involved,” she says. “We got about 15 students to commit, most of whom responded in minutes. They all sent their resumes to Dr. Meyerson and were interviewed on the phone in one weekend.

“Dr. Meyerson and others from Darwin Biosciences traveled to Omaha and started training us in the lab a couple of days later. We trained one day and started the screening process the next. We have been screening just under 500 people a day from 38 schools in the Millard School District since then.”

Dieckman says the company set up a lab such that the students have the ability to perform about 1,000 tests a day should the percentage of faculty and staff in the school district participating in the voluntary testing program climb from its current 50%.

The timing could have hardly have been better, Dieckman said, since Darwin Biosciences needed help just as the fall semester concluded.

“We’ll be doing this for three weeks, and since the students are off class it has worked out well for everyone.” Dieckman said. “They are getting paid for their efforts, which I know they appreciate, but I think most of them would have done it voluntarily because they are very excited about medicine and contributing to society.”

The students test themselves every week to ensure the virus isn’t spreading among themselves.

Overall, Dieckman said, the positivity rate among Millard faculty and staff has been remarkably low given the numbers tested, coming in at about 0.1%. She says she and her students were especially pleased at the low positivity rate given the saliva test’s demonstrated sensitivity and accuracy, especially for asymptomatic individuals.

“Each of the individuals who tested positive in the rapid screen also confirmed the result using the PCR or rapid antigen test,” she says.

Dieckman attributes the low figure to the fact that the testing program is voluntary. “It seems that those who are volunteering to take the test are more likely to be concerned about the spread of this virus and are therefore more likely to be socially distancing and wearing masks,” she says.

“I'm sure the positivity rate would be much higher in populations who don't take precautions such as wearing masks, which are incredibly efficient at protecting us from the virus.”

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