Covid 19: mass voluntary testing at the University of Fribourg

The University of Fribourg was asked to participate in the cantonal project (file photo) © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

The University of Fribourg started mass voluntary saliva testing of staff for Covid-19 on Tuesday as part of a pilot project. The aim is to prepare for an eventual return of students, who are currently studying remotely.

This content was published on March 24, 2021 - 09:00

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, up to 1,000 staff at the Faculty of Science and Medicine will best tested for Covid-19. The move, known as pool testing, is organised and run by the canton of Fribourg as part of a wider mass testing initiative. It is targeting asymptomatic people as a way of breaking chains of infection.

Pool tests

A pool test consists of using one test for analysing several samples from different participants. Should one of these grouped tests be positive, the group members are retested individually to determine the positive candidate. The approach allows for speeded up large-scale testing.

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Rector Astrid Epiney told SWI via email on Tuesday that the first day of testing “seems to be going well”.

As far as she knows, it is the first mass testing of its kind at a Swiss university. The university - Switzerland’s only bilingual university (German and French) - said in a statementExternal link that the objective was to prepare for “a progressive return of students to the University”.

Swiss universities have been in a second shutdown for in-person teaching since November 2, 2020 as part of pandemic measures – they were also closed in spring 2020. Most students are currently following courses online.

No return date

It is as yet unclear when people will be able to return to campus - this is up to the Swiss government - although there are calls for university teaching to resume.

Rector Epiney remains cautious over whether mass testing alone would help facilitate a return to on-site teaching at universities, as it is early days. “However, it may be an element among others in order to facilitate and accelerate the return,” she said.

Organising large scale testing in a large institution like a university is difficult, she commented, and would have to be taken on by the canton, as part of its testing strategy.

The current tests could be extended to other faculties and schools, as well as to students, in the coming weeks, the university said. An evaluation of the project will be made at the end of March.


The education sector is keenExternal link for universities to reopen under hygiene measures, as students are taking a toll from the effects of the shutdown. The Zurich University of Applied Sciences last week revealedExternal link that around a quarter of its students had suffered from symptoms of depression during the pandemic.

On March 19, the government dashed any hopes of reopening when it decided against the easing of most coronavirus measures, due to the rising number of cases. This Tuesday, Switzerland recorded 1,844 new cases, up 19% on last week.

Switzerland is not alone in shuttering its universities. Universities in neighbouring France, Germany and Italy are also closed for in-person teaching.

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