A&S Grad Assisting With Saliva-Based COVID-19 Test

Anne working in the lab
Anne Watkins (credit: Grubaugh Lab)

From the October 2020 Desktop News | When Anne Watkins started her master’s of public health at Yale University, she never thought she’d work with any sort of sports team, let alone a whole league. Now, she and her colleagues are partnered with the National Basketball Association to create a new COVID-19 testing procedure that she hopes will make testing more accessible and affordable for all communities.

Watkins, a 2019 graduate of UA’s Department of Biological Sciences, is working in Dr. Nate Grubaugh’s lab on the FDA emergency use authorized SalivaDirect COVID-19 diagnostic test. According to the team, it yields nearly the same results as the standard nasal-swab test, and it can have a turnaround time of less than 24 hours.

To Grubaugh’s team, the NBA presented a great combination of leadership interested in supporting research and the community with a perfect testing population: healthy, young men who were being tested regularly. So when the NBA agreed to the partnership and provided funding, Watkins says it was an “ideal scenario.”

Two women wearing masks standing with several cardboard boxes.
Watkins and one of her colleagues with several boxes containing samples from the NBA.

“Most of the work that I’ve been doing with this project has been asymptomatic validation, which is all being done with the NBA study,” Watkins said. “Validating with samples from healthy individuals, or at least individuals who aren’t showing symptoms, supports this test being used outside of strict clinical or inpatient settings. For us, this has meant testing nearly 3800 samples from NBA players, staff, and vendors to explore positive and negative agreements with swab results. This really means that we are running saliva samples in our lab and comparing them to the same individual’s swab (performed at Quest or BioReference) to make sure that anyone testing positive by swab is also positive by SalivaDirect, and the same for negatives.”

The major difference in SalivaDirect versus other standard COVID-19 tests is in its ease of, and less invasive, sample collection and nature as a simple and quick protocol rather than test kit. This, according to Watkins, allows labs to use a variety of approved rmaterials and equipment to keep costs down and prevent supply chain bottlenecks, which she hopes will allow more tests to be performed throughout the country.

“My hope is, by testing saliva and providing an easier collection process, we can get it to more rural areas and areas that are underfunded,” Watkins said. “A lot of places don’t have the resources to invest in more expensive testing. So I’m hoping we can help combat that.”

The team received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on August 15, and SalivaDirect is now trademarked, and the team is currently in the process of authorizing labs around the country to be able to run this test. In late September, the first three labs were designated, and will bring SalivaDirect to people in Florida, Minnesota, and New York. Any lab interested in the procedure can apply here. In addition, the lab’s research recently went to preprint, and will be peer-reviewed in the near future.