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Forget nasal swabs. The future of pandemic testing could be as easy as swabbing your skin

COVID-19 tests have been redesigned. This one doesn’t go up your nose.

Forget nasal swabs. The future of pandemic testing could be as easy as swabbing your skin
[Images: Meilun/iStock, Anna_Kolesnikova/iStock]
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The discomfort of a standard COVID-19 nasal-swab test might make you wonder if that Q-tip is in fact touching your brain. (It’s not.)

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A new study from the University of Surrey eliminates the need for that question entirely—researchers have developed a noninvasive skin-swab test that could detect COVID-19. And it could make testing and diagnosing viruses a whole lot easier and more comfortable in the future.

In the study, published in Lancet E Clinical Medicine, chemists and researchers from the University of Surrey, Frimley Health NHS Trust, University of Leicester, and the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester have determined a potential new way to test for COVID-19, using a simple skin swab rather than invasive nose-swab test.

In a traditional COVID-19 PCR test, the healthcare worker uses a nasal swab to test for the presence of the virus. But a skin swab test uses a different metric to determine whether a person has contracted COVID-19: Here, the researchers measured changes in skin lipid levels, according to Melanie Bailey, a reader in Forensic and Analytical Science at the University of Surrey and an author of the study. The researchers used gauze swabs to collect sebum samples from 67 hospital patients. Of those, 30 were COVID-19 positive and 37 were negative. (Sebum is an oily substance your skin produces that’s made up of lipids.) They found that patients with COVID-19 had lower lipid levels.

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Now, a sample size of 67 patients might seem small to determine a test’s efficacy, but Bailey says it was sufficient for an initial feasibility study. Another benefit of the skin-swab test is that sebum samples can be transported relatively quickly and easily, according to the report.

While more tests and validation need to be done before the skin-swab test can be adopted as a viable alternative, it’s a peek at what the future might bring: diagnostic testing that doesn’t feel like your brain is being probed.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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