UC Berkeley launches trial of saliva test for COVID-19

Saliva Testing
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The Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, launched a study at UC Berkeley to use saliva-based COVID-19 testing for detecting infection in individuals without symptoms who are working on campus.

Amid testing supply shortages, the UC Berkeley researchers from IGI are now trialing saliva tests as a quicker way to obtain patient COVID-19 samples than the previous swabbing method. The program is in its second week of testing and scientists hope to use early data to get the saliva test approved for clinical use in Berkeley and beyond.

Although there are gaps in the knowledge about disease transmission of COVID-19, tools such as regular testing can help prevent its spread as people return to school or work, according to Alexander Ehrenberg, doctoral student in the department of integrative biology and study coordinator, in an email.

Lack of access to swabs, test kits and personal protective equipment has been a challenge, however, and the study can help model the best way to regularly test people while efficiently using scarce resources.

“The standard COVID-19 test requires nasopharyngeal swabs that have been in short supply, need to be administered by a clinician, and are very uncomfortable for people being tested,” Ehrenberg said in the email.

He added that moving to a saliva test in which people simply spit into a container, such as for a genealogy test, would help with all of those issues.

Other studies, however, are still being conducted to assess the efficacy of saliva testing compared to the traditional nasopharyngeal swab method.

“A simple saliva test that works just as well would be an important step forward in being able to scale up COVID-19 testing, and not just for the UC Berkeley campus,” Ehrenberg said in the email.

The program is available to anyone approved to do work on campus.

Ehrenberg said those who choose to enroll in the study will go to a pop-up location on campus every two weeks where they will have an approximately 10-minute appointment.

If someone tests positive, they will be referred to get confirmatory clinical testing at the University Health Services Tang Center. Trained contact tracers will then help contain disease spread.

“Ideally, we would like to see that no one working on campus tests positive,” Ehrenberg said in the email. “If someone is positive, though, we want to see that the study helps to effectively isolate these individuals quickly.”

The researchers’ goal is to use early data from the study to apply for an Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later this month so the saliva test method can be used clinically in more of the Bay Area and state.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.