by Darla Martin Tucker

Widespread testing has long been touted by public health officials as one of the best ways to control the COVID-19 pandemic and save lives. In keeping with this guidance, La Sierra University in January bolstered its disease detection efforts with the rollout of new, rapid-test equipment.

The university’s Student Wellness Services department on January 13 deployed a rapid point-of-care PCR Cepheid GeneExpert Express molecular testing system. It will function in conjunction with a saliva-based screening process developed last summer by virologist Dr. Arturo Diaz who studies positive-strand RNA viruses of which the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a member. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the illness named COVID-19.

While the initial testing capacity of the Cepheid GeneExpert Express is restricted due to manufacturer limits on test cartridges, the objective is for the $32,000 machine to replace the current campus testing clinics which have been held every other week since September by PMH Laboratory Inc. based in Huntington Beach, California. The dual investment in rapid testing and the saliva-based process in Diaz’s biology lab allows the university to cast a wider net in confirming the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

Following the purchase of equipment, reagents and lab supplies, Diaz began providing twice-weekly saliva-based tests in September to student-athletes and coaches prior to practices. Dorm students who have been permitted to live on campus under health and safety protocol—a total of 79 as of the start of February—are also screened for COVID-19 via Diaz’s lab on the weeks in between the PMH Laboratory campus testing clinics. The university began offering weekly saliva-based testing to all staff, faculty and students on Feb. 16.