New study clears path for self-sampling for COVID-19

March 25, 2020 | Jolayne Houtz
A man in a face mask and protective gear holds a tube and cotton swab near the driver's side window of a car.

Patients can collect their own samples just as accurately as clinicians to protect health care workers and preserve PPE, according to new study from UW and UnitedHealth Group

A health care worker administers a COVID-19 test to a patient in a drive-thru clinic. Photo: Alamy.

Editor's note: Results from this study were published June 3, 2020, in the New England Journal of Medicine.


A simple, less invasive method that allows patients to collect their own samples to be tested for COVID-19 could help protect health care workers, preserve limited personal protective equipment and significantly speed up the testing process.

That’s according to a new study from the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences and UnitedHealth Group Research & Development.

The study found self-collected swab samples accurately detected COVID-19 in more than 90% of positive patients, which is consistent with the clinician-collected samples.

"Nasal swabs are extremely easy for anyone to self-collect, in any setting. So it's an excellent way to expand screening while reducing worker exposure," said Gerard Cangelosi, study co-author and professor in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.

New FDA guidance

The US Food and Drug Administration updated its guidance this week based on the new research, allowing patients nationwide to self-collect nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing. The study, which was prepared for the New England Journal of Medicine, included nearly 500 patients at OptumCare facilities in Washington state.

The current COVID-19 test regimen requires a trained health care worker to collect samples from deep inside the patient’s nasal cavity.

The process requires the use of personal protective equipment, is uncomfortable for the patient and puts unnecessary strain on the health care system.

Less painful, just as accurate

The patient self-sampling method is significantly less invasive, allowing patients to swab the front part of their nostrils and mid-nose.

“We know that broad, rapid and accurate testing is essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, yet the current clinician-administered process significantly limits testing capacity, puts front-line health care workers at risk of COVID-19 exposure and is unpleasant for patients,” said study lead Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, an infectious disease expert at The Everett Clinic, part of OptumCare.

“Making simple, patient-administered testing widely available will substantially improve testing efficiency while protecting health care workers and preserving urgently needed personal protective equipment, such as face masks, gowns and gloves.”

Other partners in the study include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Quest Diagnostics.




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