Researchers in the UAE have found that a saliva test is just as reliable as the nasal swab in detecting Covid-19.
Tests carried out at Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai (MBRU) found that saliva testing is just as effective as the standard — but more invasive — PCR test, which involves taking a swab from the nasal cavity.
The study, the first of its kind in the UAE and the wider MENA region, showed that testing with saliva can diagnose Covid-19 with 70 percent sensitivity and 95 percent specificity — on par with the nasal swab.
The discovery is potentially a huge breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19. The saliva test could potentially simplify community-wide mass virus testing, as the saliva can be collected by the patients in a sterile container — without the need for a medical professional to be present. This would reduce the strain on health services and the risk to frontline health workers and also prove more cost-effective.
Previous studies on the use of saliva have largely involved in-patients with Covid-19 and people presenting at screening centers with symptoms of the virus, said Professor Abiola Senok, Professor of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Mohammed bin Rashid University and the lead investigator in the study.
“This study has shown good diagnostic accuracy for saliva and the feasibility for its utilization as a potential specimen of choice in community settings and population-based screening,” she said.
The research team took saliva and nasal swabs from 401 adults — half showing no symptoms — at Al Khawaneej Health Center.
“With everyone looking for easy alternatives to the nasopharyngeal swab, our study shows the adoption of saliva as a specimen for Covid-19 testing can decrease the strain on healthcare resources,” said Dr Hanan AlSuwaidi, assistant professor of family medicine at MBRU, and co-lead investigator. “For the current swab, staff need to wear personal protective equipment when taking samples from patients. With saliva, the patients collect their own samples, so PPE resources can be be freed up for use elsewhere.”
The study involved close collaboration between the university team, Dubai Health Authority, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, New York University Abu Dhabi, the National Reference Laboratory and Unilabs Dubai.
Professor Alawi Alshiekh-Ali, Provost and Dean of the College of Medicine at MBRS said the project showed “the power of collective action.”
The research project was one of the first to be approved by the Emirates Institutional Review Board for Covid-19 Research. The study and its findings will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Infection and Drug Resistance.
The nasal swab test has been the standard because studies indicate the coronavirus binds with cells in the nasal cavity and then spreads through the body’s respiratory system into the mouth cavity. But whether there was enough virus present in the mouth was doubtful. This ground-breaking UAE study proves otherwise.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.