Forget the nasal swab, University of Arizona developing COVID-19 test that only requires salt-water gargle

Published: Dec. 7, 2020 at 11:29 AM MST|Updated: Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:19 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A new way to test for COVID-19 is on its way to the University of Arizona.

Michael Worobey, the head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, focuses on the evolution of viruses in his lab. He uses their gene sequences and builds family trees of different strains of viruses. From those family trees you can answer questions on when and how viruses like COVID-19 got established and started spreading in humans.

He came across the idea for a mouth rinse test after reading about similar testing being done in British Columbia. Worobey said the papers have not been peer reviewed yet, so they’re only preliminary, but he decided to give it a try on campus anyway.

The test has you gargle with salt water for 45 seconds and then spit it into a test tube. Already it seems to be a better option than going up the nose.

“To get to the back of the throat we’re just using a saltwater solution that the person rinses and gargles just like mouthwash,” said Worobey.

Worobey’s been testing the method on COVID-positive students in the isolation dorms, who of course prefer it. But not only is it painless, it’s better at protecting health care workers, who no longer have to be in close proximity to give it.

“It’s just a quick moment of having the mask down and then the mask goes back up,” said Worobey. “With the swab, you have a health care worker in very close proximity to someone who has the virus and it actually produces reactions where people sneeze and cough.”

The test is also appearing to be more reliable than the nasal swab.

“In about 20% more cases you’ll be able to see evidence of the virus with this saltwater gargle and rinse that you would miss with the nasal pharyngeal swab,” said Worobey.

It could be the answer to getting more students on campus to be tested. Which has been a struggle for university leaders, especially in off campus housing.

“I think it lowers the barrier that most people are not going to be freaked out about the idea of a little salt water in their mouth.”

But Worobey hopes the testing method’s reach will go even farther.

“I hope all sorts of other places around the country look to this as an option that has a lot of good things going for it," said Worobey.

Worobey said this is something that could be rolled out for PCR testing in a few weeks once they validate it for clinical use.

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