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Saliva for COVID-19 testing: Simple but useless or an undervalued resource?

Pijuan-Galito, Sara; Tarantini, Francesco Saverio; Tomlin, Hannah; Jenkins, Harry; Thompson, Jamie L.; Scales, Danielle; Stroud, Amy; Tellechea Lopez, Ana; Hassall, James; McTernan, Philip; Coultas, Andy; Arendt-Tranholm, Asta; Reffin, Caroline; Hill, Ian; Lee, I-ning; Wu, Siyu; Porte, Joanne; Chappell, Joseph; Lis-Slimak, Katarzyna; Kaneko, Kazuyo; Doolan, Lara; Ward, Mairead; Stonebridge, Martin; Ilyas, Mohammad; McClure, Patrick; Tighe, Patrick; Gwynne, Penny; Hyde, Ralph; Ball, Jonathan; Seedhouse, Claire; Benest, Andrew V.; Petrie, Moira; Denning, Chris

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Sara Pijuan-Galito

Hannah Tomlin

Jamie L. Thompson

Danielle Scales

Amy Stroud

Ana Tellechea Lopez

James Hassall

Philip McTernan

Andy Coultas

Asta Arendt-Tranholm

Caroline Reffin

Ian Hill

Research Fellow

Siyu Wu

Joanne Porte

Joseph Chappell

Katarzyna Lis-Slimak

Kazuyo Kaneko

Lara Doolan

Mairead Ward

Martin Stonebridge

Professor of Molecular Immunology

Penny Gwynne

Ralph Hyde

Professor of Molecular Virology

Moira Petrie

Professor of Stem Cell Biology


During the COVID-19 pandemic, countries with robust population-based asymptomatic testing were generally successful in controlling virus spread, hence reducing hospitalizations and deaths. This effectiveness inspired widespread asymptomatic surveillance for COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 globally. Polarized vaccination programs, coupled with the relatively short-lived immunity vaccines provide, mean that reciprocal cross-border exchanges of each new variant are likely, as evidenced by Delta and Gamma, and asymptomatic testing will be required for the foreseeable future. Reliance on nasopharyngeal swabs contributes to “testing fatigue” arising due to difficulties in standardizing administration, unpleasantness, and inappropriateness of use in younger people or individuals with special needs. There has also been erosion in confidence of testing due to variable and/or poor accuracy of lateral flow devices to detect COVID-19. Here, we question why saliva-based PCR assays are not being used more widely, given that standardization is easy and this non-invasive test is suitable for everyone, providing high sensitivity and accuracy. We reflect on our experience with the University of Nottingham COVID-19 Asymptomatic Testing, where (as of October 2021) 96,317 samples have been processed by RT-qPCR from 23,740 repeat saliva donors, yielding 465 positive cases. We challenge myths that saliva is difficult to process, concluding that it is an undervalued resource for both asymptomatic and symptomatic detection of SARS-CoV-2 genomes to an accuracy of >99% and a sensitivity of 1–10 viral copies/μl. In July 2021, our data enabled Nottingham to become the first UK University to gain accreditation and the first UK institute to gain this accolade for saliva.


Pijuan-Galito, S., Tarantini, F. S., Tomlin, H., Jenkins, H., Thompson, J. L., Scales, D., …Denning, C. (2021). Saliva for COVID-19 testing: Simple but useless or an undervalued resource?. Frontiers in Virology, 1, Article 778790.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 26, 2021
Online Publication Date Dec 15, 2021
Publication Date Dec 15, 2021
Deposit Date Nov 5, 2021
Publicly Available Date Dec 15, 2021
Journal Frontiers in Virology
Electronic ISSN 2673-818X
Publisher Frontiers Media
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 1
Article Number 778790
Public URL
Publisher URL


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