Low-cost, fast saliva test for COVID-19 to be studied

An at-home COVID-19 test, designed by Stanford researchers to be easy to use and provide results within 30 minutes, will be the focus of a study funded by the Stanford Medicine Catalyst Program.

A team led by Manu Prakash has invented a low-cost device that can be used at home for detecting the coronavirus in saliva.
Hongquan Li

Stanford Medicine is seeking volunteers for a study of an at-home, COVID-19 saliva test that’s designed to cost $5 or less, use no electricity and provide fast and accurate results.

Developed with support from the Stanford Medicine Catalyst Program, the test was invented by Manu Prakash, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering, and his group. It involves little more than boiling some water, reading some instructions and spitting into a funnel. 

The test takes no more than 10 minutes to self-administer and is designed to detect the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2 in saliva within 30 minutes, with an accuracy rate similar to that of the clinical tests performed in hospitals. A color display will appear yellow if there’s a coronavirus infection or pink if there’s not. Prakash estimates the kit’s retail cost, if the test is approved, will be as low as $5 — and perhaps closer to $1.

It’s also designed for easy, large-scale manufacture, which is crucial in the current pandemic, Prakash said. 

“The world needs rapid-screening kits now, and at a very large scale,” he said. “If the study is successful, our goal will be to manufacture tens of millions of them per day. We’re already building industrial partnerships to generate that capacity.”

For the study, members of the Prakash lab and student volunteers are assembling close to 10,000 test kits in the School of Engineering’s Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering.

The pilot study is funded by the Catalyst Program, a joint program of the School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health. The program’s goal is to speed the development of medical innovations from Stanford faculty, staff and students, with an emphasis on those that show promise of achieving results in a health care setting.

“In July, we ran a universitywide request for applications focused on innovations that can help us out of the pandemic,” said Euan Ashley, MB ChB, DPhil, associate dean in the School of Medicine and professor of cardiovascular medicine, of genetics and of biomedical data science, who co-directs the Catalyst Program. “In just a few short weeks, we received 89 submissions from a variety of Stanford community groups.”

The program is funding the development of Prakash’s test and the pilot study, the goal of which is to determine whether the test can achieve clinical-grade detection results. 

Principal investigators of the study are Ashley, Prakash and Manisha Desai, PhD, professor of biomedical informatics and of biomedical data science.

“Our hope is to prove this works in the real world and then scale to hundreds of millions of tests to help open schools, universities and businesses as we wait for the vaccines now in development to come online,” Ashley said.

Information about enrolling in the study can be found on the website for the self-screening kit.

Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering is jointly managed by the School of Medicine and School of Engineering.



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