The University Health Service will enter into an agreement with a newly launched University of Michigan startup company to offer saliva-based COVID-19 diagnostic surveillance testing services on the Ann Arbor campus. The additional testing is likely to begin in early October.
The agreement with Ann Arbor-based LynxDx Inc., which the Board of Regents authorized Sept. 17, covers eight months at a total cost not to exceed $2.1 million. The company, originally formed as a prostate cancer diagnostics lab, shifted its focus to assist in the global response to the pandemic.
The agreement will allow the university to ramp up its testing capacity to up to 6,000 individuals per week through the U-M COVID-19 Community Sampling and Tracking Program, a free, opt-in, voluntary surveillance testing program open to students living on or off campus as well as faculty and staff who work in-person on the Ann Arbor campus.
Saliva testing through LynxDx will provide the university community with an easier method of sample collection and access to a high-capacity, commercial lab that is affiliated with the university, said Robert Ernst, associate vice president for student life and executive director of University Health Service. He also serves as director of the university’s COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee.
“This will allow us to better meet a demand that we know is out there to test more asymptomatic people,” said Ernst, adding that anyone who is symptomatic will continue to be tested in a clinical setting, with students tested through University Health Service and university faculty and staff tested through their health-care providers.
President Mark Schlissel lauded the agreement as “another success story not only of our amazingly talented students, faculty and staff, but for our Office of Technology Transfer, which has enjoyed record-breaking success in helping U-M intellectual property get to market where it can do the most good.”
“The ultimate winners here are all of us, who will now work and study at a place with additional surveillance testing capacity,” Schlissel said.
LynxDx uses the FDA-approved Thermo Fisher qPCR antigen test. The company’s focus has been onsite testing at nursing facilities, providing results within 24-48 hours.
Regents voted unanimously to authorize the agreement, which falls under the state’s conflict of interest statute. The statute allows the university to enter into such agreements if certain conditions are met, including prompt financial disclosures from employees and a vote of approval from at least two-thirds of regents.
Yashar Niknafs, co-founder and CEO of LynxDx, is a bioinformatics and computational biologist with the U-M Department of Pathology. Arul Chinnaiyan, S. P. Hicks Endowed Professor of Pathology and professor of pathology and urology, is a co-founder and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. Jeff Tosoian, a clinical lecturer in the Department of Urology, is a co-founder and employee of LynxDx. Lastly, Javed Siddiqui, who serves as technical director with the university’s Center for Translational Pathology, is a laboratory clinical consultant for the company.
Ernst said the additional testing capacity was “another step in the multilayered strategy” of the university’s public-health-informed semester and does not replace the need to continue other strategies such as wearing masks or limiting large gatherings.
The university’s multitiered testing and monitoring strategy also includes:
- Baseline testing of nearly 6,000 students before they moved into Michigan Housing, as well as testing of residents of affiliated fraternity or sorority facilities.
- Exposure testing for close contacts identified though case investigation, contact tracing or workplace exposure investigations.
- Antibody testing for Michigan Medicine faculty and staff involved in patient care.
- Daily symptom tracking through the ResponsiBLUE health screening tool.
In addition to the new agreement, Schlissel spoke during the meeting about other ways in which the university is collaborating with others.
Efforts included working with the city of Ann Arbor to establish consistent expectations for students that mirror the broader community, and partnering with the Washtenaw County Health Department to encourage a local health standard establishing a low maximum number of individuals for social gatherings.
Last month, the county department issued an emergency order restricting social gatherings to a maximum of 25 people.
“University and local officials have been collaborating on the pandemic since early spring — because we are inexorably linked when it comes to COVID-19,” Schlissel said.
Board of Regents Chair Denise Ilitch said the board appreciated the “effort of everyone to make our community safe.”
“We are committed to following the science and utilizing the very best public health, medical, and scientific resources, and we will continue to adjust as the facts and science dictate,” said Ilitch in a statement on behalf of the entire board.
Earlier in the regents’ meeting, Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, delivered a presentation on the university’s ongoing work with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the governor’s office to monitor COVID-19 throughout Michigan and share important updates with the public and state policymakers.
Martin is guiding the development of the U-M COVID-19 Community Sampling and Tracking program.
As traditional flu season now begins, Martin said leaders need to consider how best to respond to a so-called “twindemic,” in which the work to address COVID-19 is complicated by influenza and other seasonal viruses.
The flu season in the United States occurs in the fall and winter, with influenza activity often beginning to increase in October and peaking between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We need to continue to prepare for the next phase of this pandemic,” Martin said.
Among the recommendations outlined in the presentation was for the university to “apply the lessons from the past six months for smarter mitigation,” including continuing to require masks, limit the size of gatherings and have processes for rapid quarantine and isolation.
Other recommendations included providing social support for COVID-19 cases, survivors and families, such as paid sick leave, adequate child care and equitable access to technology.
As an academic community, I’d like to see a lot of movement around advocating now for long-term national investments in public health systems,” she said. “These are the systems we’re going to need for the next two years while we’re continuing to manage COVID.”