25 November 2021 

Reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in universities is heavily dependent on vaccination and asymptomatic testing uptake, new research by academics at the University of Bristol has found.  

By adapting an existing mathematical model of COVID-19 transmission in universities, researchers were able to show that case numbers can be kept low when a high percentage of students are vaccinated and are using lateral flow testing twice a week.

The study, published on the preprint server medRxiv, was the first of its kind to look at the impact both these factors have on the incidence, scale and timing of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. It’s hoped the findings will help universities set policies to protect their students and wider university community while minimising any disruption to education.

At low levels of vaccination uptake (30% vaccinated and with no asymptomatic testing) there could be more than twice as many students infected this term as there were in the autumn term of 2020, with 53% to 71% of students infected during the first term.

Under the best-case scenario, where 90% of students are vaccinated and are using a lateral flow test, twice a week, four days apart, this drops to 7% to 9%, with around 80% of these cases estimated to be asymptomatic.  

At 30% vaccination uptake, asymptomatic testing is particularly effective and can reduce the number of cases by up to half if 90% of students are participating.

At high levels of vaccination uptake (70% to 90%), the trajectory of the case numbers in the student population is mainly influenced by the level of infection that is circulating in the surrounding community.

The Office for National Statistics reported earlier this month 91% of students have had at least one dose and by late last month, 85% had had two vaccine doses.

Currently, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in students, and in 18 to 22-year-olds, remains one of the lowest levels of all age groups and these observed low levels of infection are consistent with the study’s modelling findings.  

Dr Emily Nixon, Research Associate in the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and Bristol Veterinary School, who led the study, said: “Our findings highlight the importance of encouraging vaccine uptake and regular testing even without symptoms. These interventions will help institutions set policies to maintain control of COVID-19 and be able to provide uninterrupted education.

“Any students who have not yet been fully vaccinated should take up the opportunity as they could still make a difference to infection transmission. The higher the vaccination uptake, the lower the likelihood of an outbreak, which will help to keep campuses and family and friends safe.”

Waning COVID-19 immunity was not considered as part of the research because the majority of students will have received their first and second doses from June to September 2021, and students who are eligible for boosters will receive their jab by the end of the year.  

However, the impact of waning immunity on transmission is a critical area for the researchers to consider next as this may have implications for later in the 2021/2022 academic year.

The study was supported by the JUNIPER (Joint UNIversities Pandemic and Epidemiological Research) consortium and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation.

Preprint paper: Impacts of vaccination and asymptomatic testing on SARS-CoV-2 transmission dynamics in a university setting by Emily Nixon et al on medRxiv.

Please note this is a preprint, so it is a preliminary piece of research that has not yet been through peer review and has not been published in a scientific journal – so this is early data.

Further information

About the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit [HPRU] in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at the University of Bristol 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation at University of Bristol is one of 14 HPRUs across England, part of a £58.7 million investment by the NIHR to protect the health of the nation. 

The NIHR HPRU in Behavioural Science and Evaluation is a partnership between the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and University of Bristol, in collaboration with MRC Biostatistics Research Unit at the University of Cambridge and University of the West of England. 

Each NIHR HPRU undertakes high quality research that is used by UKHSA to keep the public safe from current and emerging public health threats.

About the NIHR 

The mission of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:

  • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
  • Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;
  • Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;
  • Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;
  • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
  • Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.