A testing staff member explains how to give a saliva sample to students at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Credit: UI Public Affairs: Fred Zwicky
Ron Watkins was at home having breakfast when he received an unexpected telephone call at 7:30 a.m. from Gies College of Business Dean Jeffrey Brown.
“We’ve got to talk,” Brown told Watkins, his associate dean for strategy and innovation at Gies.
Then, Watkins’ boss asked if he would be willing to take a leading role in the University of Illinois SHIELD program to make COVID tests widely accessible. With Senior Associate Chancellor Mike DeLorenzo leading the coronavirus testing for all the students, faculty, and staff on campus. Watkins would be tasked with taking those efforts and expanding them across the state of Illinois.
“Think about it,” said Brown. “They want to move fast. The clock is ticking. Every moment we don’t have the program out, we are putting people in jeopardy.”
HELPING TO BUILD THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE COVID TESTING SYSTEM AT ANY UNIVERSITY
Ron Watkins, associate dean for strategy & innovation at Gies College of Business
Watkins, who earned his MBA from Gies back in 2003, had little hesitation, even though he was in the midst of a Ph.D. dissertation that would have to be put on hold. A 46-year-man who is as fit as any 30-something guy in a gym agreed to take on the job as managing director of Shield Illinois, the initiative to roll out a saliva-based COVID test developed by a university team led by chemists Martin Burke and Paul Hergenrother.
Three months earlier, they had launched a Manhattan Project–style effort to create a cheaper, faster COVID test. After running a successful pilot during the early part of the summer, the university now needed to scale the operation and get the tests distributed to the 60,000 students, faculty, and staff who would converge on the campus in the fall.
The result of their efforts has been nothing less than extraordinary. From a standing start, the University of Illinois has conducted more than 1 million COVID tests during the recently-completed fall semester in what is widely regarded as the most comprehensive COVID testing system at any university in the country. And to get it done, Watkins recruited a core team from Gies’ iMBA program.
“We needed people who knew how to build labs, run logistics and a supply chain, and we needed them quick,” says Watkins. “So we got four different folks–three from Texas and one from Minnesota–from the Gies iMBA program who left what they were doing to join us. How incredible is that in terms of what the iMBA program has done? To be able to activate all of this so quickly has been amazing.”
A HIGHLY ACCURATE, INEXPENSIVE TEST THAT ALLOWED THE UNIVERSITY TO REOPEN IN THE FALL
At the core of the initiative, however, was the newly developed test itself. The then-standard nasal swab test was not going to be sufficient to allow the university to reopen in the fall. Those tests are too slow, too expensive, and create numerous supply chain bottlenecks to make and implement. The alternative delivers a result within hours rather than days at a total cost of $20 per test. The test, moreover, is 99.9% accurate on specificity, with a sensitivity that is eight-fold more accurate than Yale University’s saliva test. Watkins’ success in getting it out has now led to his direct involvement in expanding access across the state of Illinois.
“The testing program works,” he says. “It is a high frequency and high accuracy test. It is easy to collect. It doesn’t take a trained health care professional to collect it. It is just drooling into a tube. We target who to test and quickly get the results back, within six to 12 hours on campus. As we move it across the state, we’re able to get results back in less than 24 hours. Getting that sort of accuracy and speed is a game-changer.”
When students returned in the fall, the university began testing everyone on campus twice a week. When positivity rates were low, the protocol called for weekly testing. But if there was a positive case in a residential dorm, students were required to be tested three times a week. The ease at which students could be tested allowed the university to post exceptionally low positivity rates for COVID and not a single fatality among students, faculty or staff. The university’s seven-day positivity rate is a mere 0.45% over 1,048,308 tests. It has only risen above a single percentage point when tens of thousands of students showed up in late August, causing a spike of 2.86% case positivity (see chart below).
University of Illinois COVID dashboard shows numbers tested and the positivity rate
‘THE PROGRAM HAS ALLOWED US TO FROM DEFENSE TO OFFENSE ON COVID’
“It shows the program was able to immediately identify, isolate, and mitigate the virus and the curve came right down,” says Watkins. Right now the surrounding counties have positivity rates of 7% to 14% and we sit at less than one percent. This program has allowed us to go from the defense to the offense, Instead of waiting for symptoms, we are able to take this offensive approach to screen people and catch them in the pre-carrier stage before they can get others sick. Testing saliva directly allows us to catch the virus at earlier stages. We can catch it as early as the second day of infection.”
To create and build the infrastructure to get the program off the ground, the university’s team–which now numbers nearly 100 people, including lab staff–had to overcome several major challenges. They had to build the labs from scratch, including one running at the university’s Chicago location, installing robots to speed up lab results. They had to secure the supply chain, forging critical partnerships with key suppliers, including ThermoFisher and Gilson. The team had to design a compliance environment and gain regulatory approval for the tests. Collection sites had to be organized all across campus, a way to get the vials transported to a lab so the tests could be run. Then, there was the technology to quickly deliver results to those who took the tests. The labs can now process 10,000 tests a day with robotics. “We had to build out the equivalent of a hospital’s backbone in months,” he says.
WATKINS IS WORKING 14- TO 16-HOUR DAYS ON A REGULAR BASIS
The effort to do all that led to a frenetic pace to the effort. Since he agreed to take on the job five months ago, Watkins who has two children aged 12 and 14, has routinely put in 14- to 16-hour days. No one expects those grueling hours to change any time soon because he is now helping to expand the network throughout the state of Illinois, pulling together lab partners, hospitals and other universities in the initiative. “I am really in no place to be able to relax until we have gotten the test to all the K through 12 students in the state, the large employers, the federally qualified health centers, the long-term nursing care centers. We have 35 universities across Illinois and countless school districts waiting for us.”
By February of the new year, Watkins expects the university’s SHIELD staff to increase three-fold to 300 people who will be able to deliver one million tests weekly. “I have been thinking about this in terms of the whole state, 400 miles by 200 miles, and 12.3 million people,” he says matter of factly. “This isn’t the first SARs and it probably isn’t the last. We need to make sure we are in a different position the next time around. We are continuing to build capacity as much as we can. Until the vaccine is fully out, there is no limit.”
If anything, he believes there is much more potential to do good ahead. “You are going to see some pretty exceptional things over the next three or four months as this gets rolled out. We are just scratching the surface in terms of where we are headed and to be able to fight this. As more labs come online in Illinois and then even broader, it will make a more substantial impact.”
‘THIS IS NOT ME’
Watkins is taking a humble approach to it all. “This is not me,” he insists. “There is an incredible amount of people involved and support from the college, the campus, and the system. I am really just in the middle of helping to resource other folks who are actually getting the work done.”
When the job is complete, Watkins will return to his job at Gies where he also teaches in the capstone MBA course. “I will hopefully go back to Gies and help them to disrupt and transform education,” he says. “As technology gets better and people understand the options, it will continue to shed more light on what we do.”