Everett Clinic saline study could expand coronavirus testing

Polyester swabs and saltwater are reliable substitutes for harder-to-find materials, the study found.

EVERETT — For weeks, public health experts have expressed frustration over a shortage of both swabs for coronavirus tests and the liquid in which the swabs are stored for transport.

Help may be on the way, in the form of saltwater.

A recently released Everett Clinic study tested 50 people and found widely available polyester swabs and saline solution are just as reliable as the current testing materials that are in short supply.

“This study further refines … research showing how a simple, patient-administered test can effectively and efficiently test for COVID-19 infections,” Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, who led the study, said in a news release.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration updated its testing guidelines to allow the new testing materials. The study’s findings could be a positive step toward more widespread testing, which Gov. Jay Inslee has said will be necessary for social distancing measures to be relaxed.

“This will help us maximize our supplies so as we expand testing capacity, we are not limited in being able to take samples,” Everett Clinic spokesman Sam Templeton said in an email.

This is the second coronavirus study at the Everett Clinic to change federal rules for testing.

In March, Dr. Tu also found a testing method that lets patients swab themselves was just as accurate as clinician-administered tests.

Meanwhile, 4,000 at-home testing kits were shipped in the last month throughout King County as part of a separate study.

The Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network sent swab kits for people to self-administer and then send back to testing labs. The goal was to gauge the level of infection in the county over an 18-day period, which started March 23.

More tests are being sent out to continue the study. You must be a King County resident to qualify.

To date, the FDA hasn’t approved any form of at-home COVID-19 testing.

But King County’s self-swab study could be another step toward relaxing social distancing, King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said.

“We think this is a really great proof of concept that home testing can work,” he said.

Duchin also said the Everett Clinic study was “very encouraging.”

“Right now, we continue to face shortages of testing materials and reagents,” he said. “Everything that comes on now as a new innovation — that’s appropriately validated and compared as close as we can to a gold standard — would be welcome.”

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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