I’ve heard talk about saliva tests for the coronavirus. What are these? When will they be available? And will they offer any advantages over our current testing methods?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
As you might expect from their name, saliva tests detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus by analyzing a saliva sample. These samples are collected by having patients spit into tubes, then shipped to labs, where they are analyzed.
The Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency authorization for saliva tests: in April for one that collects samples from patients at test sites, and earlier this month for at-home collection kits. However, to my knowledge, neither of these are yet widely available.
However, if they do become more commonplace, these tests could provide a major asset in our efforts to reopen workplaces and schools in a safer and more efficient manner.
The most prevalent current method of testing involves the use of nasopharyngeal swabs, which take samples from deep inside a person’s nasal cavity. This testing method is quite uncomfortable.
The FDA has reported that it has received data showing that testing with saliva samples collected by patients themselves, under the observation of a healthcare provider, was as accurate as testing using deep nasal swabs health professionals had collected from them. This is quite promising.
The nasal swabbing process is slow, laborious and potentially exposes healthcare workers to the virus. Widespread use of saliva testing would eliminate all of these issues, as it’s quick, simple and involves virtually no risk to health professionals even when samples are collected at a lab or doctor’s office.
I wish I could tell you if (or when) we can expect broad availability of saliva tests. But if it happens, schools and employers could regularly and efficiently test their student bodies and workforces. So long as we could get the results rapidly, these communities could know their populations were relatively safe.
In this kind of environment, people – while still being careful – could function with some peace of mind and in a more “normal” manner than the masked, largely virtual world of today. I think just about everyone would welcome that change.