An alternative method of specimen collection, using saliva, is being evaluated in Victoria and other parts of the world. It may have some benefits, even though it’s not as accurate.
A cornerstone of containing the COVID-19 pandemic is widespread testing to identify cases and prevent new outbreaks emerging. This strategy is known as “test, trace and isolate”.
The standard test so far has been the swab test, in which a swab goes up your nose and to the back of your throat.
The use of saliva has several advantages:
- it is easier and less uncomfortable to take saliva than a swab
- it may reduce the risk to health-care workers if they do not need to collect the sample
- it reduces the consumption of personal protective equipment (PPE) and swabs. This is particularly important in settings where these might be in short supply.
When could salivary testing be used?
In theory, there are several settings where saliva testing could play a role in the diagnosis of COVID-19. These may include:
- places with limited staff to collect swabs or where high numbers of tests are required
- settings where swabs and PPE may be in critically short supply
- some children and other people for whom a nasal swab is difficult.
A saliva test may be better than no test at all
Undoubtedly, saliva testing is less sensitive than a nasal swab for COVID-19 detection. But in the midst of a public health crisis, there is a strong argument that, in some instances, a test with moderately reduced sensitivity is better than no test at all.
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