Dribble, Don't Spit: University Debuts New Saliva-Based Covid Test

The saliva-based test asks participants to dribble, not spit, into a test tube, to prevent expelling airborne droplets that can spread Covid-19.

The saliva-based test asks participants to dribble, not spit, into a test tube, to prevent expelling airborne droplets that can spread Covid-19. Shutterstock


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The test is free for students, faculty and staff at the University of Illinois, where it was developed. Results are available in 24 hours, but it's unclear whether testing would be mandatory.

Students and faculty members at the University of Illinois can now submit saliva samples to be tested for the coronavirus, with results available in 24 hours.

The test, developed by researchers at the university, debuted this week at a testing site on the Champaign-Urbana campus, according to a news release. The test is free and requires only a few dribbles of saliva, deposited into a test tube—a method designed to be more comfortable than the current Covid-19 test, which requires a swab to be inserted deeply into a patient’s nasal cavity.

“We think this is breakthrough technology,” Tim Killeen, the university system president, told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s low-cost. It’s rapid. We’re going to be able to do this for many, many people coming in.”

University officials said they believe they have the capacity to administer up to 10,000 tests per day by the time campus reopens on Aug. 24. Students have the option to attend remote classes, but because the university is not limiting the number of full-time residents in its dorms, it’s unclear how many people will be on campus.

For that reason, widespread testing is a key part of the school’s reopening plan. The saliva-based test—which asks participants to dribble, not spit, fluid into a tube, to prevent expelling airborne droplets that can spread the virus—can be expanded to other campuses easily because it doesn’t need to be administered by a doctor or nurse, and processing the results requires fewer chemical agents than the swabs, Killeen said.

Participants are asked to “refrain from eating, drinking, tooth-brushing, mouth-washing, gum-chewing and tobacco use for 30 minutes before submitting a saliva sample,” and must present a university ID at the testing site, according to the university.

The tests are free, but it’s unclear if students and staff members will be required to take them. A spokeswoman for the university told the Tribune that the school was “still working out the details” of its testing plan, which would be revealed later this month. But a University of Illinois chemistry professor said last month in a webinar that part of the reopening plan for the Champaign-Urbana campus included testing any student who returns to campus.

“More than 51,500 students are coming into our community again,” Professor Martin Burke said on the June 16 webinar. “We imagine this will be just part of their orientation. So you get your housing information, your dining card, your ID card—and you also submit your saliva sample, just as part of that standard re-entry into the community.”

Some faculty and staff members have been vocal in their opposition to returning to in-person instruction in the fall. In May, a group of professors released a statement condemning the idea and urging the university to weather any economic losses by tapping into its endowment if necessary.

“Adequate protection on a residential campus the breadth and size of ours is nearly impossible,” they wrote. “We unequivocally oppose any plan to reopen campus that poses lethal risks to our community.”

Illinois is one of dozens of states where new cases of Covid-19 have been steadily rising over time, although the increases have not been as steep as many southern states. On Thursday, the state reported 1,133 new cases.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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