Starting in March, the new space — housed on the campus of Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington — will analyze tests from that school, along with American, Catholic and Marymount universities under a new consortium.
The universities will initially use the lab to process 5,000 tests per week — in some cases, as a supplement to other means of testing. Catholic University, for example, will use the mobile lab to perform surveillance testing while still administering nasal-swab tests to students who show symptoms.
But officials say the number of tests processed in the mobile lab will steadily grow as schools continue to try to curb the coronavirus’s spread.
“By working cooperatively to create access to testing that is quick, accurate and affordable, we will curtail the spread of the virus among our students and our neighbors,” John Garvey, president of Catholic University, said in a statement. “My hope is that many more partners will join us to help keep our community safe and healthy.”
The schools will use a saliva-based test developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and used at universities and other organizations in Illinois, Wisconsin and California. The test has been validated in a clinical study but is awaiting emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, according to a website for the testing venture.
In the Washington region, university leaders say the additional tests will allow for more surveillance monitoring. The caseloads at the four universities have been relatively low: AU has recorded 62 coronavirus cases among students and employees since Jan. 25, and Marymount has logged 37 cases since Jan. 19. Twenty-seven students and one employee have been sickened at Catholic since Jan. 15, and two people have contracted the coronavirus at Gallaudet since Jan. 16.
And at AU, the lab will also help support a continuing return to campus, said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence. The university plans to invite 540 more students to campus next month, bringing the total population to nearly 800.
But expanding can be difficult without fast testing, even as vaccines become more widely available, she said, adding that the need is especially important at universities without medical schools or hospitals. AU does not have its own facilities to process coronavirus tests, so samples are sent to New Jersey, Aw said. It can take more than a day for officials to receive results.
Sending tests out of state is also pricey, and AU expects to cut its testing costs by at least half, said Lisa Stark, an AU spokeswoman.
The lab will also help others in the region.
The consortium of universities has found a partner in Baltimore, where the city’s school board voted Tuesday night to join the D.C.-based testing operation.
About 21,000 high school students — due to begin returning to classrooms March 15 — will be tested each week and have their samples processed at Gallaudet.
“A proactive approach is the most prudent way to protect students and staff from covid-19,” Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief executive of the city’s public school system, said in a statement. “The health screenings developed through consortium are the early detection system that we need to assure families and staff that our learning spaces are safe.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Catholic University will continue to administer nasal-swab tests to symptomatic students and employees. The university will only administer nasal-swab tests to symptomatic students.