U.K. to test weekly, swabless COVID-19 screening for healthcare workers, students and more

coronavirus test tubes
The first phase of the screening trial will gather 14,000 participants, including healthcare workers, their households and more. (Getty/RossHelen)

The U.K. government will begin testing a new, swabless coronavirus test, designed to be completed at home on a weekly basis by spitting into a collection tube.

The first phase of the screening trial will gather 14,000 participants—including healthcare workers, their households and more—run by the University of Southampton, the local government and the National Health Service (NHS). Test kits will be delivered and collected every week, with results set to be turned around within 48 hours. 

“Saliva testing could potentially make it even easier for people to take coronavirus tests at home, without having to use swabs,” said the U.K.’s health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock. “This trial will also help us learn if routine, at-home testing could pick up cases of the virus earlier.”

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The trial will run for up to four weeks, in addition to ongoing, routine testing of asymptomatic healthcare staff. Any positive COVID-19 results will be shared with the NHS’ contract tracing program, to help isolate cases before they spread.

“We will initially invite Southampton’s 800-strong GP practice workforce and their households to take part, followed by some other essential key workers and some University of Southampton staff and students as we evaluate the logistics needed for regular testing of large population groups,” said Debbie Chase, director of public health for the Southampton City Council.

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The saliva test, developed by U.K.-based OptiGene, will use a LAMP assay to detect sequences of the novel coronavirus’s genome. The testing group is also exploring the use of other swabless tests, including from Chronomics, Avacta, MAP Science and Oxford Nanoimaging. 

An additional pilot project will work to validate the LAMP saliva test’s accuracy against the standard nasal swab and PCR tests.

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“The health, social and economic impacts of lockdown cannot be underestimated, said Keith Godfrey, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Southampton. “Through this initiative, we believe we can contribute to safely restoring economic activity within the city and region during national relaxation measures, whilst enabling people to regain their lives, work and education.”

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