MSU Researchers Develop COVID-19 Testing Plan Without Nasal Swabs

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have developed a new COVID-19 test that does not involve a nasal swab.
Spartan Spit Kit
The Spartan Spit Kit is a low-cost COVID-19 test kit developed at MSU that uses saliva samples instead of nose swabs. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have developed a new COVID-19 test that does not involve a nasal swab.

Human saliva can hold traces of the virus before individuals show symptoms. Jack Lipton, chair of the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Neuroscience, and his team lead the MSU COVID-19 Early Detection Program, designed to detect asymptomatic people through saliva testing.

The team developed a low-cost solution for the university that allows users to collect their own samples with the Spartan Spit Kit. The university is asking all students, faculty, and staff who are on campus or in the area to enroll in the program.

Those enrolled will be contacted at various times throughout the fall semester to pick up a kit and provide a saliva sample. They can return the kit to a walk-up or drive-through location on campus. Once the sample is processed, they are contacted and told whether they need to follow up with a clinical COVID-19 test. Personal information collected through the program is protected, and the extent of involvement, like the frequency of provided samples, is up to each individual.

Lipton further speeds the turnaround time and minimizes the use of testing resources through an innovating pooling strategy: each participant’s saliva is placed into two pools of saliva, each with 10 unique samples from other participants. If someone in the pool has COVID-19, both pools they are in come back positive and they are advised to have further testing to confirm a positive diagnosis. If all samples in both pools are negative, everyone in those pools are cleared.

The team has the capacity to test about 2,000 saliva samples per day, or 10,000 per week. The voluntary initiative will monitor asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 among MSU faculty, staff, and students through the fall semester.

Lipton developed the capability for testing after encountering obstacles among academic labs to assist in the fight against COVID-19. This resulted in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and several nationwide television appearances in which he proposed the creation of a network of academic labs to serve in emergencies.

“We could utilize university laboratories across the country, coordinated by the federal government, to quickly stand up for pandemics or other outbreaks when sophisticated biomedical testing is needed,” Lipton says. “Academic labs have the experts with the skills and knowledge to help our national response to be proactive when possible, and reactive when needed, for pandemics or other disasters.”