A non-invasive, self-administered, highly effective spit test could help mass testing become a closer reality. It cuts the demand for supplies such as swabs, preserves the labor of health-care workers, reduces the need for personal protective equipment, alleviates some pressure on global supply chains and makes the test more appealing than your average root canal surgery.
A saliva-based test could be “game-changing” for those reasons, said Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Now the labs capable of analyzing those saliva tests are moving quickly to adapt. The lab at Rutgers was accustomed to processing DNA genetic tests—people spitting into tubes. “I had never done a viral test in my life maybe six weeks ago,” said Jay Tischfield, a distinguished professor of genetics at Rutgers.
But the lab was repurposed almost overnight to handle 10,000 coronavirus saliva tests per day, including samples from drive-through sites, and Dr. Tischfield said they recently paid $2 million to clone their equipment and double the lab’s output. The Rutgers test also includes a preservative that helps keep the sample stable between collection and analysis.
The Yale paper helps support that approach. To determine whether spit tests could detect the coronavirus with the same accuracy as the uncomfortable but historically reliable nasopharyngeal swabs, Dr. Wyllie and her team collected samples from 44 patients at Yale New Haven Hospital who had already tested positive and 98 asymptomatic health-care workers. The size of their study has since increased to 89 and 178, respectively.
They found the spit tests to be more sensitive to the virus with more consistent results. They also detected the virus in the saliva of two health-care workers who had tested negative using the nasopharyngeal swabs.
It wasn’t long before the Yale study was the subject of enthusiastic tweets from researchers and luminaries in the coronavirus response, including Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner who is advising the U.S. government.
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