Coronavirus: New saliva test could replace awkward nasal probing

Experts are hopeful a new possible way to test for COVID-19 will make the process less complex.

New research from the Yale School of Public Health suggests saliva may be more sensitive for COVID-19 detection, than invasive swabs.

Massey University senior genetics lecturer Nikki Freed says it would be a major breakthrough.

"The work shows that saliva may be better than nasopharyngeal swabs for testing for the virus that causes COVID-19. The authors show that saliva had better sensitivity and was more consistent for detection of the virus than nasopharyngeal swabs."

The study is yet to be peer-reviewed, but Dr Freed called it "promising" and a much less scary way to test for the disease, which has killed nearly 200,000 people worldwide and 17 here in New Zealand.

"From my perspective, saliva has a lot of advantages over nasopharyngeal swabbing, namely that it is easy to self administer and non-invasive. Most people can easily spit in a cup. 

"Nasopharyngeal swabs, on the other hand, require a health care worker to get fully dressed in PPE and can be uncomfortable for the patient. So this study is a win-win."

The research is being lead by New Zealander Anne Wyllie.

University of Otago epidemiologist David Murdoch said the study shows the saliva test works well for patients who have "moderate or severe disease".

"The findings may be different when testing people with mild or asymptomatic disease. They also only collected samples first thing in the morning. 

"So, it will be important to evaluate the performance of saliva samples in people with mild disease and in specimens collected at other times of the day as well in order to gain more confidence in these promising findings."

Several thousand Kiwis are being tested every day at present - some who present showing symptoms, others randomly, to check for asymptomatic spread in the community. 

The past week has seen only single-digit numbers of new cases discovered each day, thanks to the four-week lockdown.