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DU’s Community SPIT Lab is Prepared for Omicron

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Nathan Willers

Director of Communications

As with other variants, DU's Omicron detection capabilities are at the forefront of testing readiness.

Announcement  •

Throughout the last 18 months, the DU community has held strong to protection of our students, faculty, and staff through frequent COVID testing, preventative guidelines, and care for those who have become ill—both physically and mentally. One of our primary lines of defense, frequent PCR testing with quick returns for results, has proven to be a potent shield against cluster outbreaks and widespread infection in our community. Keeping with this vigilance, the DU SPIT Lab is already prepared for the Omicron variant—as they have been prepared for other variants. Forensic geneticist and Biological Sciences Professor Phillip Danielson brought us up to speed on the lab’s current preparations:

“As a University community dedicated to the public good, DU has always strived to be the best in what we do. The scientists and analysts in the SPIT Lab embrace this as part of our core mission. Accordingly, it is not enough for us to determine if a sample is positive or negative for SARS CoV2. Rather, our lead scientist, Vicente Contreras, has been the engine behind the lab's ability to accurately and precisely measure the quantity of virus in positive samples. The ability to quantify the “viral load” has helped to keep COVID-19 positivity on campus very low by rapidly identifying members of our campus community most at risk of serious disease and/or virus transmission.

“Another major focus of the SPIT Lab has been the ability to identify COVID variants of concern as they impact our community. Here too our lead scientist has worked tirelessly to develop rapid molecular assays for each new variant. We have used a combination of TaqMan PCR assays and HRM (High Resolution Melt) analysis to detect each new COVID variant. Rather than DNA sequencing where results can take a week or more, these high-speed molecular assays detect variant-specific mutations in a matter of hours. Over the past year, the lab has monitored WHO and CDC databases for each new variant of concern. Typically, within a week of learning of a new variant, the SPIT Lab is able to develop and test a variant-specific detection assay. Assays have been developed to detect multiple variants first reported in the UK, India, South Africa, Brazil, New York, and California. While the media was abuzz with news of the new Omicron variant and governments around the world were announcing travel and other restrictions, the SPIT Lab was busy examining the mutation profile to ensure that we would be able to detect the new variant of concern if and when it arrives. Within days, we were able to reassure the DU COVID Response Network that the SPIT Lab has a mutation detection assay that will be able to specifically detect Omicron. Keeping the DU community safe is our top priority—one that we will be able to continue to meet.”

Anticipating an enormous quantity of testing in the first few days of January when students return to campus, the DU SPIT Lab has continually expanded efficiencies and capacity and can perform up to 3,000 tests daily—returning results within 12 hours on average. Upon return, all students will be required to test within 48 hours of arrival on campus. Students were required to submit proof of vaccination when they arrived for fall quarter in September 2021 and mask requirements remain in effect in classrooms and other campus gathering areas. Through these and other measures, DU has been able to maintain a dramatically lower COVID caseload than surrounding communities and US averages.

These efforts have been made possible through DU’s COVID Response Team, and the SPIT Lab operation which is led by:

Corinne Lengsfeld, SPIT Program Director
Phillip Danielson, SPIT Lab Director
Nancy Lorenzon, SPIT Intern Program Director
Sarah Watamura, COVID Response Coordinator and SPIT Lab Co-Principal Investigator

Three people performing COVID testing