School of Medicine

Podcast: The making of a fast, accurate saliva test for COVID-19

Volunteers take part in a study to evaluate the feasibility of large-scale, rapid COVID-19 saliva testing on the medical campus on August 17, 2020. Two thousand university employees were asked to participate. (Photo: Matt Miller/WUSM)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials have talked about the need for better, faster and more frequent testing. Recently, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis developed a saliva test that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus without inserting a nasopharyngeal swab into the nose or throat.

The saliva test also doesn’t require chemical reagents to extract RNA from the sample. Such reagents have been in short supply, often resulting in delays in reporting test results. The test can be run in a few hours and, ideally, can return results the next day. Further, it can test for more than one virus at a time, making it particularly useful as the COVID-19 outbreak stretches into flu season. The new test was developed by a team from the School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics and the McDonnell Genome Institute, in collaboration with the biotechnology company Fluidigm. The test has attracted the attention of state officials in Missouri, who are planning to use the test to screen populations known to be at risk for the virus.

In this episode, scientists Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, and Richard Head discuss why they believe the saliva test will be important in detecting the virus’s presence even before people begin having symptoms, including in individuals who remain asymptomatic. Milbrandt is the James S. McDonnell Professor and head of the Department of Genetics and the McDonnell Genome Institute, and Head is a professor of genetics and director of the Genome Technology Access Center at the McDonnell Genome Institute.

Read and listen.