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BREAKING: University reports drop to 40 cases this week, lateral flow tests for all students confirmed

Oxford University’s testing service has confirmed 40 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff for the week 14th-20th November, with a positivity rate of 17.2%. This marks a drop of almost 70% in the number of new cases compared to last week’s 126, as well as a substantial decrease in the test positivity rate compared to last week’s 30%.

While cases increased almost linearly in weeks 1-3 this term (with close to 200 new cases confirmed each week), new case numbers began falling in weeks 4 and 5. However, the number of tests conducted in these weeks was down almost 50% compared to earlier this term, while the test positivity rate reached record highs. This week marks the first substantial drop in the positivity rate to half of its peak at 34% in week 4.

Image credit: Oxford University Status and Response website (https://www.ox.ac.uk/coronavirus/status)

Current University guidance is that students and staff should not get tested unless they have been asked to or they display symptoms of COVID-19. The University’s white paper states that “one of the challenges the University faces is staff and students with no COVID-19 symptoms asking for tests unnecessarily”.

The approach when sending students home for the winter vacation is different, however, and the University will provide tests to all students before they leave. In an email to students, the Vice Chancellor confirmed that “Colleagues across the collegiate University are working hard to ensure that we will be able to offer two lateral flow tests to all students in 8th week so that you can safely travel home for Christmas confident that you will not be endangering the health of your family and friends.”

This follows trials of lateral flow tests on student volunteers at Merton College and St. Hilda’s as part of the government’s “Operation Moonshot”, aiming for regular mass testing to reduce the spread of the virus. The Lateral Flow Immunoassay Test (LFIA) requires individuals to take a swab of their nose and throat and insert it into a tube of liquid for a short time, with a result provided after 20 to 30 minutes. They are aimed at potentially supplementing, rather than replacing, the standard use of RT-PCR (reference test polymerase chain reaction) tests.

Today, results for the of the phase III trial of the Oxford Vaccine, ChadOx (ChAdOx1 nCoV-2019) were announced, suggesting a composite efficacy rate of 70%. The efficacy was 90% for people who received a half dose of the vaccine followed by a full dose. For those who receive two full doses of the vaccine, the efficacy rate was 60%. None of those who received the vaccine became seriously ill or required hospitalization.

The vaccine has advantages that make it easier to use than competitor vaccines whose phase III trial results were released last week. It can be stored at fridge temperature, allowing it to be distributed more effectively than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which need to be stored at freezing temperatures. Oxford’s manufacturing partner, AstraZeneca, is preparing to make three billion doses worldwide. The Oxford vaccine, at a price of around £3, also costs less than Pfizer’s (£15) or Moderna’s (£25) vaccines.

In an email to students and staff this morning, the Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson congratulated Professors Andrew Pollard, Adrian Hill and Sarah Gilbert and the 280 members of their teams. While celebrating the results, she also emphasised that “we still have some difficult times ahead. It is not yet time to relax, to travel and socialize or to mourn properly those we have lost.”

The University has implemented a four-stage emergency response, depending on how wide the spread of Covid-19 is. The current status is Stage 2, which allows the University to operate “in line with social distancing restrictions with as full a student cohort as possible on site”, with teaching and assessment taking place “with the optimum combination of in-person teaching and online learning”. A Stage 3 response would imply “no public access to the University or College buildings” and “gatherings for staff and students only permitted where essential for teaching and assessment to take place”.

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