Washington University Laboratory Develops COVID-19 Saliva Test for Screening on a Massive Scale

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing may be uncomfortable and some people may try to avoid them, so researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were looking for other ways. Knowing the virus can be detected in saliva, Rich Head, a professor of genetics and director of the Genome Technology Access Center at the McDonnell Genome Institute, and his team got to work.

    “Ourselves and I think a number of other labs started embarking down this path of,  ‘Could we make saliva work as a reliable, clinical grade test?’” said Head.

    His lab succeeded and the center is already processing saliva tests. It began by assembling 10,000 saliva collection kits per week for people in the state of Missouri.

    The ability is growing to assembling 50,000 collection kits per week with the help of a local company.

    “We ask people to pool and drool basically, pool the saliva in their mouth and drool through the funnel which is very easy to collect,” said Head.

    Results from the COVID-19 saliva test are available in a few hours and, ideally, able to be communicated to people tested within a day. The ability to test for COVID-19 from saliva samples was developed in collaboration with the biotechnology company Fluidigm.

    “It runs on their platform. It also has a hardware system called the Fluidigm Biomark,” said Head. “It was able to detect even just a handful of copies of the virus in a sample.”

    The test could help simplify and expand the availability of COVID-19 diagnostic testing while relieving healthcare workers of the need to conduct sample collection as they do for nasal and throat swab tests. It’s considered added protection for workers by reducing exposure to COVID-19.

    Head explained how developing the saliva test took a few tries, but the science with the Fluidigm technology made for highly sensitive, accurate and fast virus detection.

    At the time the Genome Technology Access Center developed the test, about 300 labs in the world had the Fluidigm equipment, but says the number is now growing. Because this equipment is on the Washington University Medical Campus in St. Louis, people tested in Missouri are among the first to benefit. The center is running hundreds of saliva samples per hour, and the lab is growing to process 35,000 samples a week by the end of October.

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