Dubai rolls out Covid-19 spit test for children to avoid need for PCR nasal swabs

A trial involving more than 400 children found the test was almost as effective and much less invasive

A patient collects his own saliva sample at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site operated by University of Utah Health at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., November 14, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan
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Dubai's health authority has introduced a saliva test for children to avoid the need for uncomfortable nasal swabs.

Young people who are travelling abroad or are getting tested as a precaution can visit one of 19 government-run centres.

The saliva alternative is in use for children aged between 3 and 16.

It involves spitting into a tube which is then sealed and tested.

The UAE typically tests more than 100,000 people per day.

The saliva test costs Dh150, the same price as the commonly used PCR test, and delivers results within 24 hours.

For children, in particular, it is highly beneficial as it eliminates the discomfort associated with a nasal swab test

Dubai Health Authority approved the change after several months of trials with the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“For children, in particular, it is highly beneficial as it eliminates the discomfort associated with a nasal swab test, which means children will be at ease and find the test comfortable,” said Dr Farida Al Khaja, chief executive of DHA's clinical support services and nursing division.

“This joint effort highlights how research-based data can help develop public health policies to provide the highest-standards of medical care to the population.”

The research team took saliva and nasal swabs from 476 children who came to screening facilities in Dubai for Covid-19 testing.

Saliva specimens were collected in sterile containers. At the same time, the children provided nasal swab specimens to compare accuracy.

Samples were then tested for Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, at a virology laboratory.

Findings showed saliva could be used for viral detection with 87.7 per cent sensitivity and 98.5 per cent specificity, similar to a PCR nasal swab test.

Results showed that saliva is a useful diagnostic specimen for Covid-19 screening in children.

Similar research has been conducted at New York University Abu Dhabi where scientists said saliva screening had a greater accuracy than PCR nasal tests to identify the virus.

Similar checks have been tried in the UK and Canada, with Abu Dhabi scientists claiming their research reduced the risk of false results and provided more accurate transmission rates.

The study in Dubai, which was one of the region’s largest on children and received approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee at DHA, was submitted for peer-review publication.

Dr Hanan Al Suwaidi, lead investigator and assistant professor of family medicine at Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences, said the advantages of employing saliva for testing were reduced risk to frontline healthcare professionals and less strain on critical health equipment.

Experts said it was also a cost-effective method of mass testing.

“We are very proud that Dubai’s efforts in fighting this pandemic have been research-driven and evidence-based,” Dr Al Suwaidi said.

“The use of saliva as diagnostic specimen for Covid-19 screening will indeed offer an accessible and more comfortable alternative for children and their families.”