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Pioneering saliva self-sampling keeps society open during the pandemic

Our expertise underpinned a saliva-based mass testing programme that kept learning open for more students during the height of the pandemic. Work is progressing to scale this approach for larger populations.

Key facts

  • A Southampton pilot trialled at-home saliva testing in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • A second phase helped control infection levels at four infant and secondary schools together with the University of Southampton

  • Learning from this Southampton approach directly informed national efforts to develop mass testing


Saliva self-sampling

In April 2020, the UK had entered a comprehensive national lockdown. BRC Theme Lead Professor Keith Godfrey contributed to a national discussion of regular mass testing for safely easing restrictions and shutting down transmission. This was followed by pioneering development of a pilot programme to determine the feasibility of such an approach.

Pulling together a unique team, including NIHR Southampton BRC behavioural science, communications and LifeLab leads, and a remarkable partnership of organisations, he successfully integrated regular, at-home saliva self-sampling with use of a laboratory test faster and cheaper than RT-PCR. Participants received test results within 24 hours by text message via NHS systems.

Following an initial pilot in employer settings over June and July 2020, the programme was able to deliver a second phase with weekly testing for students at four Aspire Community Trust schools in Southampton and at the University of Southampton.

Their work allowed fast identification and targeted control of infection, helping keep learning open for more students. LifeLab educational materials and activities were critical to fully engaging students with the testing and the science behind it. These were later adapted and deployed elsewhere, including as part of Liverpool's mass testing pilot.

Scaling for larger populations

Learning from the first two phases directly informed national efforts to develop mass testing, and the Southampton programme is now working towards scaling the approach for larger populations.

A unique partnership spanning the Hampshire and Isle of Wight region, the programme was centred on a collaboration between the University of Southampton, Southampton City Council and the NHS. The core team included experts in public health, social science, behavioural science, clinical data systems, education and infectious disease molecular biology, plus programme management, communications and legal professionals.

Professor Godfrey’s drive and leadership in piloting effective, regular mass testing for COVID-19 was recognised with an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list for 2021.

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