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USC-developed coronavirus saliva test expanding to other SC campuses

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A University of South Carolina student turns in a saliva sample to be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A saliva-based coronavirus test developed by University of South Carolina researchers will be shared among other colleges statewide using nearly $17 million in aid to pay for the expansion.

USC launched its spit-screening regimen in the hope of processing 2,400 students a day. Results can come back as quickly as 24 hours, and the process is less invasive and cheaper than nasal swabbing.

The school’s testing lab was briefly shut down in September after a key staffer became sick, though officials didn’t disclose the person’s name or illness.

University spokesman Jeff Stensland said USC system campuses and the state’s historically Black colleges will be among the first wave to receive saliva testing kits, though officials expect others to follow, including Clemson University and the College of Charleston. 

Created by USC’s College of Pharmacy, the flagship university is among a handful of higher education institutions with federal approval to use saliva as a means to test for COVID-19. Others include Yale and Rutgers.

College dean Stephen Cutler said the large-scale rollout fits into its community service model.

"This expansion will allow us to do this in a meaningful and timely way," he said in a statement.

Federal approval for saliva testing didn't come until August when the Food and Drug Administration used its emergency powers to help combat the pandemic, but that was limited to hospitals and clinics tied to Rutgers, which is in New Jersey.

Weeks later, a test created at Yale able to be processed on state Department of Health and Environmental Control machines opened the possibility of spit-based testing here. The Ivy League school allowed "open access," giving any laboratory with compatible equipment the opportunity to use its method.

USC is partnering with state public health officials, the Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University on the initiative and is receiving $5.3 million of the overall allocation through federal COVID-19 aid to the state.

Stensland said demand for the saliva testing has picked up, although increasing volume hasn't prolonged the 24-hour window for results coming in. 

In addition to being more comfortable, using saliva testing could be a safer alternative to swabbing.

"Collection of saliva samples by patients themselves negates the need for direct interaction between health care workers and patients. This interaction is a source of major testing bottlenecks and presents a risk of (hospital-based) infection," Yale School of Medicine scientist Anne Wyllie wrote in the Sept. 24 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Saliva testing also "alleviates demands for supplies of swabs and personal protective equipment," Wyllie wrote.

The money headed to USC will broaden testing capabilities, cut down on turnaround times and build capacity to meet the need of other state universities.

USC has logged 2,562 total COVID-19 cases since Aug. 1, with 22 active cases, according to data posted on the university’s website Tuesday.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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