Skip to main content
Move the World.
COVID-19 Saliva Test

Lead Image © Karenfoleyphoto / Adobe Stock

To return to something resembling normal life, experts say the U.S. needs frequent, widespread COVID-19 testing — though their suggestions vary, something around one to four million tests daily should suffice.

But the U.S. conducted just 750,000 tests daily in July, and rather than increasing in August, that average is dropping.

Part of the issue is that overwhelmed labs are having trouble quickly processing tests, in part because of shortages of testing supplies. That can lead to delays in results, which come too late to help people quarantine or inform their contacts.

That could be changing, though, thanks to SalivaDirect, a COVID-19 saliva test developed by Yale University, with support from the NBA and the NBA players' union.

On August 15, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for the test. And while it's not the first saliva test for coronavirus — it's actually the fifth — it could be the one that finally makes widespread, frequent testing possible in the U.S.

Yale's COVID-19 Saliva Test

COVID-19 saliva tests have a few benefits over ones that require nasal swabs.

For one, they're much less uncomfortable than the nose/throat swab, which could encourage more people to get tested more often. And because they don't require healthcare workers to get as close to patients, they minimize the risk of transmission and the need for personal protective equipment.

The key difference between SalivaDirect and other diagnostic tests — saliva-based or otherwise — is that it doesn't include a separate step to extract the coronavirus's genetic material (if present) from a sample.

"This is significant because the extraction kits used for this step in other tests have been prone to shortages in the past," the FDA wrote. "Being able to perform a test without these kits enhances the capacity for increased testing, while reducing the strain on available resources."

Swabs are also occasionally in short supply, so that's another potential bottleneck SalivaDirect eliminates — it can work with a saliva sample collected in any sterile container.

SalivaDirect could enable more group COVID-19 testing.

Another potential benefit? Saliva may make it easier to pool samples, which would allow even more group coronavirus testing — potentially enabling labs to test several times as many people with the same equipment.

A final major difference between Yale's COVID-19 saliva test and others? The Yale researchers aren't charging for it.

Rather than producing a test kit with special equipment or chemicals with the intention of manufacturing and selling it, the researchers designed an open-source protocol that they validated using a variety of reagents and lab instruments.

Now that they've secured FDA authorization, they're sharing this protocol with all laboratories free of charge.

That means that instead of paying $150 for a COVID-19 saliva test — the cost of a test being sold by Vault Health — patients could pay $10 or less for SalivaDirect, researcher Anne Wyllie told the Yale Daily News.

The Baller Benefactors of SalivaDirect

Patients will be getting more for their money, too — with a sensitivity of 90%, SalivaDirect is the most accurate of the available saliva-based coronavirus tests, according to a paper published on the preprint server medRXiv.

That's not as accurate as some COVID-19 tests, but labs would be able to provide patients with results in just a few hours, rather than days.

"(SalivaDirect) loses a little bit of sensitivity, but what we gain is speed and that it should be up to 10 times cheaper," researcher Nathan Grubaugh told ESPN.

The cost of a COVID-19 saliva test could drop from $150 to $10 or less.

As for why ESPN is covering a new coronavirus test, the NBA and players' union not only served as the Yale team's benefactors, they also agreed to assume the role of lab rats, taking the test so the researchers could gauge its accuracy against nasal swab tests.

The results almost always matched, and now that the COVID-19 saliva test has proven itself in the Orlando bubble, it's ready for the national stage.

"Wide-spread testing is critical for our control efforts," Grubaugh said in a news release. "If cheap alternatives like SalivaDirect can be implemented across the country, we may finally get a handle on this pandemic, even before a vaccine."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Coronavirus
COVID-19 Tests That Are Fast, Cheap, and Less Accurate May Be Key
covid-19 tests
Coronavirus
COVID-19 Tests That Are Fast, Cheap, and Less Accurate May Be Key
Fast, cheap, DIY COVID-19 tests could dramatically increase the amount of testing done. And some experts think the trade off in accuracy would be worth it.

Fast, cheap, DIY COVID-19 tests could dramatically increase the amount of testing done. And some experts think the trade off in accuracy would be worth it.

Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Group Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.

Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.

Public Health
Cheap CRISPR-Based Coronavirus Test Delivers Fast Results
CRISPR-Based Coronavirus Test
Public Health
Cheap CRISPR-Based Coronavirus Test Delivers Fast Results
Scientists have unveiled STOPCovid, a CRISPR-based coronavirus test that avoids many of the shortcomings of existing diagnostic tests.

Scientists have unveiled STOPCovid, a CRISPR-based coronavirus test that avoids many of the shortcomings of existing diagnostic tests.

Public Health
University Students Step up to Expand Coronavirus Testing
Expand Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
University Students Step up to Expand Coronavirus Testing
University students are helping expand coronavirus testing by volunteering their time to help process thousands of test samples per day in school labs.

University students are helping expand coronavirus testing by volunteering their time to help process thousands of test samples per day in school labs.

Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
at-home coronavirus tests
Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.

A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.

Public Health
FDA Authorizes First At-Home Coronavirus Test Kit
At-Home Coronavirus Test
Public Health
FDA Authorizes First At-Home Coronavirus Test Kit
The FDA has authorized LabCorp’s at-home coronavirus test kit, meaning people no longer need to leave their houses to find out if they have COVID-19.

The FDA has authorized LabCorp’s at-home coronavirus test kit, meaning people no longer need to leave their houses to find out if they have COVID-19.

Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Could Check One Million People Daily
Coronavirus Test
Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Could Check One Million People Daily
BillionToOne has announced the creation of a coronavirus test it says would allow the U.S. to check more than one million people for COVID-19 daily.

BillionToOne has announced the creation of a coronavirus test it says would allow the U.S. to check more than one million people for COVID-19 daily.

Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.

In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.

Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Offers Results in Minutes
new coronavirus test
Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Offers Results in Minutes
Abbott Laboratories’ new coronavirus test can tell if a person has COVID-19 in just five minutes — far faster than existing testing methods.

Abbott Laboratories’ new coronavirus test can tell if a person has COVID-19 in just five minutes — far faster than existing testing methods.