Simple saliva test for coronavirus to be piloted in Southampton


The government is piloting a coronavirus saliva test that could become an alternative to the existing invasive, and sometimes painful, deep nasal and throat swab.

The new test only requires the individual to spit into a sample pot to be tested for current Covid-19 infection, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

The trial is due to be launched in Southampton this week – and over 14,000 people working in GP surgeries, universities and in other frontline roles have been recruited for the first phase.

The project is being jointly led by Southampton City Council, the University of Southampton and the NHS, the DHSC said, with the help of other public services in Hampshire.

The current testing system involves throat and nasal swabs. Credit: PA

Participants will receive test results within 48 hours and details of those who test positive shared with the NHS Test and Trace Programme.

There have been fears the existing swab test could be yielding a significant level of false negatives, potentially due to the difficulty in swabbing the sinuses and back of the throat.

Research from Bristol University and John Hopkins university has found up to 20% of swab tests return false negatives.

It also provokes coughing and spluttering, putting health workers – already working in close quarters with the testee – at even greater risk of the droplet-borne infection.

It is hoped the new tests will significantly boost existing testing capacity and accessibility.

Professor Keith Godfrey, from the University of Southampton, said: "The health, social and economic impacts of lockdown cannot be underestimated."

"Through this initiative we believe we can contribute to safely restoring economic activity within the city and region during national relaxation measures, whilst enabling people to regain their lives, work and education."

He told ITV News: "Testing of saliva is a natural thing to evaluate, especially to pick up the important group of people who are infectious but not yet symptomatic."

He explains the how the saliva tests work, saying: "What we've developed is a system for distributing very simple kits to peoples' homes, essentially a specimen pot together with some instructions of putting saliva onto a spoon and then in the pot.

"Then getting the pack dropped off at a collection site taken up to a testing laboratory by our team."

The pilot is due to run for four weeks with testing on a weekly basis.

Debbie Chase, Interim Director of Public Health, Southampton City Council said the new form of testing could help the public adjust to a "new normal".

When Ms Chase was asked how important the test could be alongside other measures for getting the economy moving again, she said: "The testing programme is very important as one of many measures for us to get back to this 'new normal' to help people get back to school, to everyday life, to jobs.

"I think it's a really important opportunity for us but clearly we need to evaluate it alongside existing testing measures," she adds.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Saliva testing could potentially make it even easier for people to take coronavirus tests at home, without having to use swabs.

"This trial will also help us learn if routine, at-home testing could pick up cases of the virus earlier."

He added: "I am very grateful to everyone involved in the trial who is helping us develop our understanding of the virus which will benefit not only our but the global response to it."

The test was developed by biomedical firm Optigene, and the DHSC said it is also looking at other non-swab, saliva-based tests from four other companies.

It said it is also working with a number of manufacturers ready to scale up production of the kits.

CEO of Biotechnology company Chronomics, Dr Tom Stubbs said his company along with others have produced a "CDC gold standard method for the detection of Covid-19".

He said: "What we've done is develop a saliva based test using the CDC gold standard method for the detection of Covid-19 viral and we've adapted it for saliva."

He added that there are the three key things about saliva testing including that it's non-invasive in nature - spitting in a tube doesn't have any of the difficult things that a nasal swab has with it.

He praised the technology as it's less risky to transmit Covid-19, since taking a nasal swab can cause the person being tested to sneeze.

Dr Stubbs adds: "It's repeatable so can be used to going back to work programmes."

"The third key thing is that it's self administered, reduces the risk of cross-infection to the people that the country needs the most right now," he said.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know