New Coronavirus Testing Kit Enables Potential COVID-19 Patients to Swab Themselves Without Risking Health of Clinicians

Scientists have created a self-administered test for COVID-19, which they claim is as accurate as screenings by medical professionals.

Swabs taken from the nostril and mid-nose of COVID-19 patients picked up the disease in more than 90 percent of cases, according to a statement by healthcare company UnitedHealth Group which created it.

That is the same level of accuracy as those carried out by clinicians, it said. The study involved almost 500 patients at OptumCare facilities in hard-hit Washington state, and the results were prepared for an unnamed major peer-reviewed medical journal.

Its designers say the test is more efficient and less invasive than existing methods, where a healthcare worker wearing personal protective equipment uses a Q-tip-like object to swipe a person's nasopharynx at the back of the throat and nose. They also hope it will prevent such workers from being exposed to the new coronavirus, which has sickened over half a million people as shown in the graphic by Statista below.

coronavirus, covid19, statista,
A map by Statista showing the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide as of March 26. Statista

UnitedHealth Group said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its guidance based on its research to allow patients to test themselves for COVID-19.

The Wall Street Journal reported a UnitedHealth Group clinic rolled out the approach on Monday, and it hopes to implement it around the country.

Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, an infectious disease expert at The Everett Clinic of OptumCare, said in a statement: "We know that broad, rapid and accurate testing is essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, yet the current clinician-administered process significantly limits testing capacity, puts frontline health care workers at risk of COVID-19 exposure, and is unpleasant for patients.

"Making simple, patient-administered testing widely available will substantially improve testing efficiency, while protecting health care workers and preserving urgently needed personal protective equipment, such as face masks, gowns and gloves."

Ken Ehlert, chief scientific officer of UnitedHealth Group, said in a statement that Dr. Tu was working on the front lines of its clinical care facilities when he saw an opportunity to improve COVID-19 testing and "rallied the expertise and resources of UnitedHealth Group to complete the study in less than one week."

Asked if the test seemed promising, Ian Jones, professor of virology at the U.K.'s University of Reading, who did not work on the project, told Newsweek: "Yes this seems both sensible and practical. The data suggest that the sample was taken accurately in most cases so the level of missed positives is likely to be acceptable, especially when traded off against the increase in the number of samples it would allow."

Jones highlighted the method is not a complete test, and the result still needs to be verified in a lab.

"Testing has emerged as a key issue in knowing where the virus is ahead of appropriate control measures, so anything that increases the numbers and also reduces the drain and risk to healthcare workers should be beneficial," he said.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
coronavirus, covid19, testing, getty
Medical personnel secure a sample from a person at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing station at a Kaiser Permanente facility on March 12, 2020 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Image

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Kashmira Gander is Deputy Science Editor at Newsweek. Her interests include health, gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, human rights, subcultures, music, and lifestyle. Her work has also been published in the The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The i Newspaper, the London Evening Standard and International Business Times UK.

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