How does the COVID-19 Saliva Test work?

09 December 2020

Lab Chat

Last month, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) announced it is launching a new COVID-19 diagnosis test, capable of returning accurate results within a maximum of 24 hours using only a saliva sample. The test is now available to anyone at a price of AED 150 (€34) across all DHA facilities in the emirate.

Aimed at children between the ages of three and 16 years old, the test is less invasive than the nasal swab which had been used prior. This breakthrough means that children across the nation will now be more open to the idea of receiving a test, since they will not have to suffer the discomfort and trepidation associated with its predecessor.

A significant breakthrough

The launch of the test comes off the back of a successful study entitled “Saliva as an Alternative Specimen for Molecular COVID-19 Testing in Community Settings and Population-Based Screening”. Published in the scientific journal Infection and Drug Resistance in October, the paper was a collaborative effort between the DHA, the Mohammed Bin Rashid University (MBRU) and Unilabs UAE.

Over the course of the research, the scientists were able to successfully extract viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) from 300µl of each saliva sample, using “using the NeoPlex COVID-19 kit for the RT-PCR amplification of the SARS-CoV-2 RdRp and N gene targets” to detect the presence of the coronavirus.

More appropriate for minors

The news is welcome, given that it offers sensitive groups like young people and the elderly the opportunity to get tested for the disease without the invasiveness of a nasal swab. Instead, all that is required is a simple saliva sample and a positive or negative diagnosis will be returned in between 24 and 48 hours (the same time window as the nasal swab).

“For children, in particular, it is highly beneficial as it eliminates the discomfort associated with a nasal swab test, which means children will be at ease and find the test comfortable,” explained Dr Farida Al Khaja, who is the CEO of DHA’s Clinical Support Services. “This joint effort highlights how research-based data can help develop public health policies to provide the highest-standards of medical care to the population.”

Improving diagnostics rates

The new test should help to improve the UAE’s testing rates and allow the authorities to gain a better handle on the percentage of the population which suffers from the disease. However, it’s not expected to represent a fool-proof solution, since the best time to test for COVID-19 is still subject to some debate.

For example, it’s known that during the first four days of infection, there is a 67% chance that a sufferer may return a false negative diagnostic. That’s because the virus is still in its incubatory stage and does not yet return either symptoms or tangible test results, making it even more challenging to know exactly who has the disease. Still, the saliva represents a positive step in the right direction as the UAE continues to battle against the pandemic.

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