George Mason University expands testing and tracking behind faculty research

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George Mason University announces it is introducing a rapid-result, saliva-based COVID-19 test that will greatly expand testing capabilities on its campuses this spring. The effort, led by Mason’s faculty, is part of a comprehensive program to better track and control the virus on campus.

Mason scientists, who are pushing the boundaries of technologies that are keeping Mason’s campuses safe, are also developing an antibody test that can track a body’s response to the virus and vaccine. See more in this video.

The use of the saliva test with the recently acquired Fluidigm system, designed to analyze large numbers of test samples, will help Mason increase testing capacity from 1,000 tests per week to a goal of 10,000 by March, said Lance Liotta, co-director and co-founder of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, who leads the CAP CLIA laboratory in which the COVID testing takes place.

CAP CLIA accreditation—from the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)—ensures laboratories provide precise test results and comply with professionally and scientifically sound laboratory operating standards.

“The more we test, the more we are able to identify people who are positive at the earliest stages of the infection and therefore stem the spread of infection,” said Ali Andalibi, senior associate dean for the College of Science. “That’s what we’re striving toward.”

Liotta leads the multidisciplinary team that is internationally recognized for its expertise in diagnostic testing. The team pivoted from its primary work in cancer research to take up the fight against COVID-19, following the start of the global pandemic last spring.

Mason was a model during the Fall semester for its efforts to combat the spread of the virus, with some of the lowest COVID-19 case numbers among Virginia’s largest higher education institutions, and no known transmission in its classrooms.

“I've been very gratified to see the enormous amount of effort being put forth by Mason scientists in all the colleges toward the COVID crisis,” Liotta said. “We collaborate with scientists in many different sectors of Mason, as we work together to develop these new strategies all the way from testing, to the methods, to how you collect samples, and how you care for patients.”

The saliva test, which received an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, will help track symptomatic and asymptomatic cases on campus and will be available at five sites across Mason’s three university campuses. The samples will be analyzed at Mason’s Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Virginia, in the laboratories directed by research professor Virginia Espina. Turnaround time for results will be two days or less.

Julie Zobel, Mason’s associate vice president for Safety, Emergency and Enterprise Risk Management, and her team led efforts to set up the campus infrastructure for testing. That entailed construction of five testing sites with card scanners, check-in counters and private saliva-collection booths. About 50 people, including 20 licensed medical professionals, were hired to staff the sites.

“It’s been a challenge, but we’ve had a large team of medical professionals, emergency and risk managers, researchers and lab personnel, and IT and finance professionals working tirelessly over the past five months to get us to this point,” Zobel said. “I am proud to be part of such a high-performing and driven team all working toward keeping our community safe.”

Liotta’s team is also validating a novel test that measures a body’s antibody response to the virus and COVID vaccine. The test will help researchers understand a person’s post-vaccination response, how long individuals will remain resistant to the virus and how a person’s immune system fights the virus.

“The antibody test is going to be the future because everyone wants to know, did the vaccine work for them?” Liotta said. “Somebody who has immunodeficiency syndromes gets the vaccine. Did the vaccine work for them? We can answer that question. We can also tell whether a patient should be donating their plasma to treat others.”

About George Mason University

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. Learn more at www.gmu.edu.