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Universities turn to testing as vaccine scramble threatens reopening plans

European institutions ramp up Covid-19 tracking to get students and staff back to campuses

Many universities are turning to testing to get researchers and students back on campuses as national efforts to vaccinate citizens against Covid-19 run into problems across Europe.

Institutions in many countries are determined to get students back to lectures and researchers back to labs, despite infections increasing in 16 countries across the EU and European Economic Area and deaths from the coronavirus now exceeding 600,000.

“Our chief concern is getting the intensive testing regime going, which is the main part of the national plan for reopening at this stage,” Jesper Langergaard, director of the Danish rectors’ conference Universities Denmark, told Research Europe.

Anyone physically present on a Danish campus, including staff and students, must have proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken no more than 72 hours earlier, Langergaard said. He expects everyone in the sector who wants a vaccine will have received one by late summer, but warned that until then Danish universities are responsible for organising testing on their campuses and controlling who can or cannot enter.

With less than 7 per cent of the EU’s population fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and vaccinations being targeted at older people, it may still be months before most university students and researchers receive the jab. By contrast, tests are plentiful, and increasingly required at some universities.  

In the Czech Republic, any researcher or employee entering a university building must be tested either on campus or before they arrive, said Jaroslav Miller, rector of Palacký University Olomouc. He said universities’ chief concern was ensuring final-year students—in particular those with practical training, such as medical or sports students—are able to finish their studies.

“For the time being we insist only that teachers providing academic training in final year of study should be vaccinated,” said Miller, adding that it is “perceived as a conditio sine qua non for reopening universities”.

A similar approach to testing is also being taken in German universities. On 18 March, the German rectors’ conference HRK said its members are “looking for ways to incorporate the increase in testing capacity into their established hygiene practices with a view to gradually introducing face-to-face teaching for a small group of socially distanced students”.

“However, the case numbers need to have dropped to a certain level and the universities have to be sure that they have the necessary funds and logistics covered,” HRK said.

In France, where university students are now allowed to attend face-to-face classes once a week, the government has made free testing available to the whole population in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19. On 1 April the CPU French rectors’ conference said it supports the full reopening of universities only once staff and students are entirely vaccinated.

Institutions in other countries, including Spain and Italy, have eschewed testing, taking a lead from their governments.

The Conference of Italian University Rectors, CRUI, said university personnel are being vaccinated as part of a national campaign to vaccinate people in certain professions, but that as yet universities are not considering mandatory testing.

Alejandro Carra Biosca, a spokesperson for Spain’s rectors’ conference CRUE, said “testing is not being done because this measure should be endorsed and supervised by the health authorities”. He added: “To date, the objective data in university facilities do not justify mass screening or systematic testing.” 

Carra Biosca said Spanish rectors have asked the government to consider university staff a priority group for vaccination, but “so far, the government has told us this is not needed”.

In the meantime, universities’ “top priority” will be to ensure safety on campuses and limit spreading the virus, he said. “We must be extremely careful in order to avoid contagion during the students’ examinations over the next three months.”

In one case, Covid-19 testing has become largely irrelevant. In late March the government of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar announced it had offered the vaccine to its entire population—including all teaching staff and domestic and international students at the University of Gibraltar. 

The university’s vice chancellor Catherine Bachleda said the step means “we have been able to return to on-campus learning and to continue to offer a consistent, excellent student experience”. This is a situation other universities may look upon with envy for some time. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version also appeared in Research Fortnight