The patient tilts back her head and winces as the long swab stick pushes six inches up her nose. The tip twirls around uncomfortably before it's withdrawn.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases."
A gloved and gowned healthcare worker wearing a face shield and mask tells the patient that she will learn whether she is positive for COVID-19 as soon as the lab can process her test.
This is the typical unpleasant scenario for getting a coronavirus test. But times are rapidly changing: Today, for the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared one company to sell saliva collection kits for individuals to use at home.
Scientists at the startup venture, RUCDR Infinite Biologics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, say that saliva testing offers an easier, more useful alternative to the standard nasal swab.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases," said Dr. Andrew Brooks, chief operating officer at RUCDR.
Another venture, Darwin BioSciences in Colorado, has separately developed an innovative method of testing saliva for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Saliva testing can allow earlier detection to identify people who may not know they are contagious, say scientists at both companies. In addition, because patients spit into a tube or cup, saliva testing is safer for healthcare workers than taking swabs. This frees up scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) for use elsewhere. Nasal swabs themselves have been in scarce supply.
Saliva testing, if it becomes widespread, potentially could mean opening society sooner. The more ubiquitous testing becomes across the population, experts say, the more feasible it becomes for public health officials to trace and isolate contacts, especially of asymptomatic cases. Testing early and often will be essential to containing emerging hot spots before a vast outbreak can take root.
Darwin Biosceiences is preparing to seek an FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) this month for its patented "CoVScreen" testing system, which potentially could be available to labs nationally by mid-summer.
Meanwhile, Infinite Biologics will now begin selling kits to consumers for home collection, upon order by a physician. The FDA said that the company's saliva test was as accurate as the nasal swab method used by health care professionals. An FDA summary documenting the company's data reported: "There was 100% positive and negative agreement between the results obtained from testing of saliva and those obtained from nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs."
The greatest scientific advantage, said Dr. Brooks, is that nasal and oral swabs only collect the surface area where the swab goes, which may not be the place with most viral load. In contrast, the virus occurs throughout a saliva sample, so the test is more trustworthy.
The lab at Rutgers can process 20,000 tests a day, with a 48-hour turnaround. They have 75,000 tests ready to ship now.
The Leap: Detecting Sickness Before You Feel It
"We wanted to create a device that could detect infections before symptoms appeared," explained Nicholas Meyerson, co-founder and CEO of Darwin.
For more than 300 years, he said, "the thermometer was the gold standard for detecting disease because we thought the first sign of illness was a fever. This COVID-19 pandemic has proven that not all pathogens cause a fever. You can be highly contagious without knowing it."
"The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
Therefore, Meyerson and co-founder Sara Sawyer from the University of Colorado began to identify RNA biomarkers that can sense when a pathogen first enters a molecule and "sets off alarms." They focused on the nucleic acids concentrated in saliva as the best and easiest place to collect samples for testing.
"The isothermal reaction in saliva takes place at body or room temperature," he said, "so there's no need for complicated testing machinery. The chemical reaction can be read out on a paper strip, like a pregnancy test -- two stripes if you're sick, and one stripe if you're okay."
Before the pandemic, limited but successful human trials were already underway at CU in Boulder and at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus east of Denver. "This was our proof of concept," he said.
Darwin was founded in March and has secured enough venture capital to concentrate protype development on detecting the virus causing COVID-19. So far, said Meyerson, "Everything works."
A small double-blind test of 30 samples at CU produced 100 percent accuracy. "I'm not sure if that will hold true as we go into clinical trials," he said, "but I'm confident we will satisfy all the requirements for at least 95 percent clinical validation."
The specific "CoVStick" test strips will roll out soon, he said: "We hope before the second wave of the pandemic hits."
The broader saliva test-strip product from Darwin, "SickStick," is still one to two years away from deployment by the military and introduction into the consumer drugstore market for home use, said Meyerson. It will affordably and quickly detect a range of viral and bacterial infections.
An illustration of the "CoVStick."
A Potential Game Changer
Society needs widespread testing daily, said George Church, founding core faculty of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Speaking at an online SynBioBeta webinar in April, he urged developing stockpiles of testing kits for home use.
As for any potential of false positives, Church said a much bigger risk is not having enough tests.
"Saliva testing is going to speed up the timeline for opening society a lot," said Meyerson. "People need to self-collect samples at home. A lot more people are going to be willing to spit into a tube than to push a swab six inches up their own nose."
Brooks, of Rutgers, addressed the big picture. "It's critical that we open society as soon as possible to minimize the economic impact of the pandemic. Testing is the surest and safest path. The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”