Enjoyable? Well, there are more pleasant things, says 17-year-old Zara. The student is standing in the gym of the Bavarian International School (BIS), and she has just spat between two partitions into a brown plastic bottle in which half the class’s saliva was already swimming. The school calls this a “saliva spitting class pool”. After all, you can’t see or smell anything yourself when you spit in, says Zara. It all only happens in the head.
A pilot project at the BIS in Haimhausen near Dachau came to an end on Thursday: the school, which in addition to its location there also operates a house in Munich and has a total of around 1200 students, and the Augsburg laboratory operator Synlab spent three weeks trying out how to do it can efficiently test entire classes for the coronavirus. There is not enough capacity to test each student individually, which is why the idea is to bundle the tests: the students spit one after the other into a shared container that contains a virus-inactivating liquid. The mixture is then subjected to a PCR test.
With this one cannot reliably diagnose every infection, says the biochemist Alexander Hauenschild from Synlab, who developed the project. But it is not about finding all infected people, but about the so-called super spreaders: “People who go through a bar and infect 20 others”, although they may not show any symptoms themselves. Many corona infections can be traced back to such highly contagious people, says Hauenschild. If someone is sitting in a class with such a high viral load, the test reliably shows that. And then the class can take an individual test.
With such pool tests, corona outbreaks can be limited at an early stage, says school principal Chrissie Sorenson. At their school, ten classes of different ages took part in the pilot, they came every Monday and Thursday to the gym, which was converted into a small test center, to spit. This takes about a minute per class. And that has already proven itself, says Sorenson: At the end of October, the PCR test hit the saliva pool of an eighth grade. The next day the children came to the individual test – and so they found out that a student who showed no symptoms had a lot of viruses in his throat. Sorenson says he did not infect another child in his class. The school’s hygiene measures have also proven their worth.
In the BIS gym, the students not only practiced spitting into a bottle together. Individual students as well as a complete fifth and a twelfth grade also did additional individual tests each time – independently, without professional help, by rinsing the throat, not by smear. Corresponding test kits are already available in stores, says Hauenschild from Synlab: You gargle with water for ten seconds, spit into a transparent cup and pull the result into a small tube. That then goes to the laboratory.
Such a test is more pleasant than a swab through the nose, which she also had to take once, says Zara, who has gargled six times. The fifth graders can do it just like the older ones. And basically, daycare children could do that too, says Hauenschild. Nobody is afraid of a sip of water, unlike a long swab. Anyone who can brush their teeth can gargle and spit.
Synlab bears the costs for the pilot project at the Bavarian International School; Hauenschild says they have invested around 30,000 euros in material – and they are also happy to cooperate with public schools if interested. On the one hand, the company came to BIS through personal contacts at the International School Augsburg – and BIS was also predestined because it has its own “Health Department”.
This is headed by nurse Julia Lönker; Otherwise, she and her team take care of students or teachers who are injured or need medication. Now they have organized the test center in the gym, laid out walking routes, set up tables and partitions and determined their spitting times based on the class timetables in order to disrupt lessons as little as possible. But none of this is rocket science, says Lönker, and once everything has been set up, the effort is limited.
A converted gym does not necessarily have to be. The aim is actually for the students to spit into the containers directly in their classrooms, says Hauenschild. He hopes that if you can search for superspreaders across the board with the help of the spitting pools, that would be a real contribution to fighting pandemics. But how the idea will continue is still open. Next, they want to sit down with schools and health authorities, says Hauenschild. And then see what can be implemented.