UC Berkeley launches trial of saliva test for COVID-19

Scientists from the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), the same UC Berkeley group that rapidly popped up a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing laboratory in March, are now trialing a quicker way to obtain patient samples: through saliva.

To date, diagnostic tests for COVID-19 have relied on samples obtained by swabbing uncomfortably deep into a person’s nasal passages or in the mouth and nose, but those tests must be administered by trained medical staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Saliva, collected in the same way companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com get samples for DNA genealogy analysis, can be gathered without medical supervision, and that saves time, money and precious PPE.

If the new study demonstrates that detecting the coronavirus in saliva is just as reliable as using nasal swabs, UC Berkeley will be able to ramp up the monitoring of students, faculty and staff as the campus gradually opens in preparation for the start of classes in late August.

Jennifer Doudna, wearing mask, outside kiosk

Jennifer Doudna talks with Alex Ehrenberg, a graduate student in integrative biology who is helping organize the FAST trial of saliva tests for COVID-19. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“At Berkeley, we hope to bring at least some of our undergraduate students back to campus safely in the fall, and one way to do that is to provide them with asymptomatic regular testing, so that we can be monitoring their health and insuring that they are not transmitting the virus,” said Jennifer Doudna, who spearheaded the pop-up diagnostics lab and the saliva testing. Doudna is a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and the executive director of the IGI, which is organizing the experimental study.

Infected people can spread the virus before symptoms appear, or even if symptoms never appear. Regular testing would, in theory, allow the campus to catch infected, but asymptomatic, people early, isolate them, trace and quarantine their close contacts and ideally tamp down inevitable flare-ups before they spread.

Campus volunteers began collecting saliva samples from a few hundred UC Berkeley employees on June 23 at kiosks set up in the breezeway of the Genetics and Plant Biology building, near Pat Brown’s Grill.

“As opposed to swab testing, saliva testing is a lot simpler and allows people to literally spit into a tube,” Doudna said. “We think it will take about five or six minutes as they pass through our testing center here, so we hope to make this very painless, easy and simple for people to come by and get tested.”

Graduate students, faculty and staff who are authorized to work on campus can sign up to participate in the Free Asymptomatic Saliva Testing (FAST) study on the IGI website.