It’s official: Victorians in coronavirus hot spots and recently returned travellers have run out of excuses to avoid getting tested.
Instead of tolerating an uncomfortable throat or nasal swab, all residents have to do now is spit into a cup.
And it’s all thanks to a world-first saliva test developed by scientists at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.
The breakthrough test is already being rolled out to coronavirus hotspots, such as Keilor Downs, as health authorities race to contain outbreaks in the city’s north-west and south-west.
It will also be available to returned travellers in hotel quarantine – about 30 per cent of whom have been refusing to be tested to avoid the discomfort of a swab.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the test would make it easier for vulnerable people, such as young children, the elderly and people with disabilities, to get tested.
How does it work?
You’ll need to collect saliva in your mouth for a minute or two then spit it into a small jar.
That jar will be taken to a laboratory for testing.
Bear in mind that a little bit of saliva won’t cut it – pathologists need a good mouthful to test it in the lab.
What are the downsides?
The saliva test is not as effective as a swab taken from the back of the throat or nose.
Professor Sharon Lewin, director at The Doherty Institute, said the saliva test had a “sensitivity of around 87 per cent”, which means the test produces an accurate result 87 per cent of the time.
This means 13 per cent of tests may be misdiagnosed.
“The reason why that happens … is you have lower levels of virus in saliva compared to the nose,” Professor Lewin told reporters on Monday.
“So definitely the levels are lower, and that means you have a risk of missing some tests.
“It’s not as good, but it’s certainly better than no test at all.”
The saliva test is still undergoing a pilot scheme, meaning it won’t be available to everyone who wants it straight away.
Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said he didn’t expect it to replace the nasal and throat swab due to its lower sensitivity.
No test is perfect
Even throat or nasal swabs can produce incorrect results, which is why it is important to be retested if you have ongoing flu-like symptoms, Professor Lewin said.
“Throat swabs can miss people, because the quality of collection may be poor or if you don’t actually get the swab right down to the back of the throat or the nose,” she said.
In the future, Professor Lewin said she wanted people to be able to do the saliva test at home and send it into laboratories.
“That’d be the perfect outcome,” she said.
“But we still have a bit of work to do to develop that.”
Hundreds of testing jars are available across Victorian hospitals, with plans to scale up in coming weeks.