Published February 2, 2021
To increase testing capacity and speed up turnaround time, SUNY is opening a COVID-19 surveillance testing laboratory at UB starting March 1.
SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras made the announcement Sunday afternoon during a visit to UB, where he spoke in the Flag Room of the Student Union on the North Campus. Malatras was joined by UB President Satish K. Tripathi and Upstate Medical University President Mantosh Dewan.
The surveillance testing lab, which is being set up in existing space in Farber Hall on the South Campus, will process COVID-19 saliva testing for all Western New York SUNY campuses. Once open, the lab will increase SUNY’s testing capacity by 75%, allowing the system to process 350,000 tests each week, with results returned to campuses within 24 hours.
Surveillance testing is a public health measure that helps identify asymptomatic individuals, thereby detecting cases before they spread. UB has been conducting on-campus surveillance testing since September as part of its comprehensive COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
“The main piece to be successful is testing. That allows us to monitor the situation and aggressively address situations as they emerge,” Malatras said.
Since the beginning of September, SUNY has conducted more than 765,000 surveillance tests on its campuses, with a 0.55% positivity rate. SUNY administered 44,000 pre-spring semester COVID-19 tests, with a positivity rate of 0.35%, he said.
Malatras also cited UB’s low positivity rate of 0.43% compared to 5% for Erie County, where UB’s campuses are located. During the fall semester, UB monitored the prevalence of the virus on campus by conducting more than 36,000 tests of students, faculty and staff. Results showed a positivity rate of less than 1%, again significantly lower than the regional positivity rate.
UB currently has a positivity rate of 0.39%, as noted on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“We’re doing everything in our power to protect our students, faculty and staff and have a safe environment here,” the chancellor said.
Opening up a surveillance testing lab at UB was critical in ensuring that SUNY could increase capacity and process test results quickly now that, as was announced previously, all SUNY campuses must conduct weekly COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff who will be on campus regularly during the spring semester, which started on Monday.
“The key for us is test, test, test,” Malatras said Sunday. “Let’s see what’s on our campus. Let’s isolate the problems quickly so it doesn’t spread like wildfire on a campus. We’re going to monitor this like a hawk.”
“Along with the health and safety guidelines already in place at UB, weekly surveillance testing using Upstate Medical’s COVID-19 saliva test will help ensure a safe and productive semester for our entire university community,” Tripathi said.
“All of us at UB have been committed to following these health and safety measures, which have allowed us to remain focused on our university’s mission of excellence throughout the pandemic.”
Dewan pegged the cost of the lab at $500,000, including equipment and personnel. SUNY is investing $120,000 by purchasing the equipment necessary to process SUNY Upstate’s COVID-19 surveillance test at the SUNY lab at UB. Additional funding is being provided by molecular diagnostics company Quadrant Biosciences, a joint partner in the project. The lab will be staffed by Quadrant Biosciences.
SUNY Upstate and Quadrant Biosciences co-developed the Clarifi COVID-19 test, the top-ranked saliva test in the world, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The test accurately detects all common strains of the virus, including the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants.
The test also detects asymptomatic cases, which is crucial for SUNY campuses to safely reopen in the spring.
“The special sauce here is, we can see what’s going on in our campuses when people may not even be exhibiting symptoms, and that has been able to keep our positivity rate low,” Malatras said. “This will allow us to stay open and manage any problems that may emerge in a meaningful way, like we’ve done in the fall.”
He noted that FDA approval of SUNY Upstate’s saliva test allows for additional laboratories to be used for testing analysis. SUNY also plans on being able to extend testing beyond campus borders and into the broader communities surrounding its campuses.
“SUNY has stepped up in a major way,” he said.
Prior to his announcement, Malatras met with UB and SUNY officials, including UB student representative Matt Taboni, and toured the North Campus surveillance testing site in the Student Union.
Visit UB’s COVID-19 planning and response website for additional information on weekly surveillance testing and other measures being taken this spring.