As the novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc around the world, the ability to test rapidly and frequently is a key tool to contain the pandemic. However, widespread testing is held up by several barriers, especially the length and unpleasantness of the process, the need for healthcare workers to be present at each test, and the scarcity of critical supplies.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis – in collaboration with the biotechnology company Fluidigm – may have found a solution.
The team has developed a new testing method that is faster, simpler, more economical and does not require many of the supplies in short supply. The new test can be self-administered, without any healthcare professionals present, simply by spitting into the tube. Results can be made available within hours of the test.
“There’s an urgent need to simplify testing for COVID-19 so that people who are infected can be easily and quickly identified,” said Richard Head, a professor of genetics and director of the Genome Technology Access Center at the McDonnell Genome Institute. “The test we developed doesn’t require RNA extraction, a time-consuming and expensive step necessary for other COVID-19 tests. Our team found the right recipe, so to speak, to allow direct testing for the virus in saliva samples, and it works exceptionally well. The minimum number of viral particles that we can detect is extremely small — about six viruses per microliter. We’re well below the levels of virus that people produce when they have symptoms. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to detect positive cases even before people start having symptoms and in those who remain asymptomatic.”
In August, Fluidigm received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, allowing the university to conduct the test. Washington University has applied for a separate authorization which is still pending. It is not yet known how quickly this new test could be made available to the public.
The new test could mark a breakthrough in our global ability to test. perhaps enabling workplaces, schools, and other institutions to reopen more seamlessly while we wait for a vaccine.