UF Health Screen, Test & Protect unveils new saliva test to replace uncomfortable nasal swabs

It’s getting a lot easier and more comfortable to receive a novel coronavirus test at the University of Florida.

The UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative on Saturday began offering saliva coronavirus testing for UF students, faculty and staff, a method of detecting the virus that is expected to largely replace nasal swabs that are inserted deep into noses.

More than 250 saliva tests were administered at Broward Hall, a UF residence facility, over the weekend, and the method is expected to be expanded across all testing sites over the next few weeks.

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“This gives people a simpler, less-invasive means to be tested than the nasopharyngeal swab, or what some people jokingly refer to as the brain biopsy — the deep nose swab that can be so disagreeable to many of us,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., M.Sc., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a public health specialist who directs the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative.

Research outside of UF has recently validated the method as being as accurate and sensitive as nasal swabs. Lauzardo said UF Health Pathology Laboratories has finished its own validation of the saliva tests.

The specimens collected via saliva are processed on the same equipment and in much the same manner as those collected by nasal swab, Lauzardo said. And technicians are expected to be able to process saliva samples faster and at about half the cost, he said.

Both saliva and nasal swabs are processed using a method called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a method of detecting coronavirus antibodies that indicate someone is infected. This approach is considered the gold standard for evaluating samples, Lauzardo said.

Saliva testing will come to mostly replace nasal swabs at UF Health Screen, Test & Protect testing sites, although it might take several weeks to completely ramp up. “We’re going to gradually phase it in because there are some operational considerations,” said Lauzardo.

Nasal swabs, however, won’t go away completely.

“Nasal swabs are still going to have a role,” Lauzardo said. “It will serve as a back-up when someone can’t produce enough saliva. And a nasal swab is required to do flu testing and coronavirus testing simultaneously. Saliva can’t do both. And that will be important if we have a significant amount of flu this winter.”

The saliva test, most of the time, will take just a little bit longer than the nasal. Test subjects will be given a test tube with a straw. Lauzardo said they will be asked to tilt their head forward and provide a trickle of saliva that will go down the straw into the tube.

For a test to be completed, 2 cubic centimeters of saliva must be collected. That amounts to less than half a teaspoon.

“The collection is quick and painless,” Lauzardo said.

And results are still provided within 24 to 48 hours, as they have been previously. UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect initiative is averaging about 1,000 coronavirus tests daily.

“We’re constantly looking at our methods and our approaches, learning from peer institutions and learning from the literature to always find ways to do things better and more efficiently as we work hard to make campus as safe as possible,” Lauzardo said.

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