Amid praise from the White House to the Governor’s Office in Trenton, a test developed at Rutgers University that can detect the presence of the virus behind COVID-19 in saliva made its public debut Wednesday in Middlesex County.
The new test — far less invasive than the deep nasal or throat swab that has been the mainstay in the battle against the pandemic — is being hailed as a potential game changer in its scalability, quicker turnaround for results, and the fact that it can be administered without close contact by a medical worker. In a press release announcing the FDA approval, Rutgers said that, building on another Rutgers’ coronavirus testing innovation, its capacity for testing saliva samples could expand to “tens of thousands” each day.
Developed by a team that includes Rutgers’ RUCDR Infinite Biologics, the test received a signoff for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration over the weekend. Its Emergency Use Authoriization power allows the FDA to sanction unapproved medical products or unapproved uses of approved medical products in an emergency when there are no approved alternatives available.
On Wednesday, a box filled with 300 test kits sat inside the Kilmer Motor Vehicle Commission inspection station modified by Middlesex County workers to accommodate the new procedure. Drivers pulled up, got their kits through the car window and then handed saliva-filled tubes back to workers.
Health care workers collecting those specimens did not require the full personal protective equipment, or PPE, that must be worn by those who have to reach inside a car to swab someone’s nose and throat. That relieves one factor that has been straining the supply of PPE, in that equipment worn by those involved in testing can be diverted instead to frontline health care personnel in hospitals that need it.
Nick Melchiorre, the general manager of Accurate Diagnostic Labs, which partnered with RUCDR Infinite Biologics, explained how the process works. The person to be tested spits into the tube, then screws a special cap shut, which releases a chemical to preserve the virus’ genetic signature for detection during processing at the lab. He said the process, from sampling to results, is speedier than the swab method — a critical plus given the current backlog with swab tests.
Self-collection is key
“Self-collection — guided by a physician or health care provider — is significantly faster in getting through mass quantities of people,” said Melchiorre, whose company also partnered with RWJBarnabas Health, an underwriter of NJTV News, in the development of the test.
“We’re looking at a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time with the new testing that we’re doing here today,” said Lester Jones, director of health services for Middlesex County. “We’ve experienced anywhere from 24 hours to seven days turnaround time with the other method.”
Diego Sanchez of Perth Amboy was among those who sat waiting in a line of about 40 cars at the MVC site in Edison for his turn.
“It’s a really good idea. It’s easy, looks simple,” he said, noting that it had been hard for him to get tested. “It was, until this opened up here, with the saliva testing.”
The county will offer its residents the saliva test at the location Monday, Wednesday and Friday by appointment only, 300 tests a day. Availability is expanding, though, with the saliva test headed to RWJBarnabas and University Hospital in Newark by the end of this week, officials said.
“To be the first in the state, maybe even in the country, and to be able to turn around and get 300 people here a day,” said Ronald Rios, director of the Middlesex Freeholders. “This is going to be huge, huge.”
Murphy: ‘A source of great pride’ for NJ
Gov. Phil Murphy hailed the new test and Rutgers’ involvement in its development, and noted that President Donald Trump had done the same Tuesday.
“It is incredibly gratifying, and I think it’s a source of great pride for all of us, to see New Jersey’s flagship university stepping up to fill the testing gap,” he said. “I am proud of the work at Rutgers and look forward to moving forward with them.”
Murphy and others have repeatedly talked about the need for expanded testing, both to get a better handle on the health crisis now and for the role it could play in safely emerging from the shutdown.
“We really need mass testing,” said Dr. Stanley Trooskin of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “And this is going to put us well on the road to do that. The lab at Rutgers has the ability to do up to 10,000 tests a day.”