Technion rolls out home-made coronavirus spit tests on campus

As Israel’s third wave rages, university says swift saliva checks it developed can help prevent outbreaks in dorms and allow school to reopen when lockdown ends

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Samples from the NaorCov19 test, developed by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Red indicates a positive result; yellow is negative. (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)
Samples from the NaorCov19 test, developed by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Red indicates a positive result; yellow is negative. (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

An Israeli university that invented a spit test for the coronavirus has rolled it out for regular use by staff and students, in a bid to drive down virus cases on campus.

Everyone who studies or works at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is being asked to screen themselves weekly using the NaorCov19 test, by giving a saliva sample that takes less than an hour to analyze once it reaches the lab.

Instead of going for regular swab testing, which involves lining up at a screening center and waiting a day or more for results, they are being asked to deposit samples at a campus “spit station.”

Lab staff add a specially-developed enzyme, and samples turn red if they are negative, and yellow if they are positive.

Prof. Naama Geva-Zatorsky, who developed the test, lauded the simplicity of her invention, but admitted that it misses 1 in 10 positives picked up by swab testing.

Given this, she said it offers routine screening that is a good extra line of defense against the virus, but is not an alternative for PCR testing among people with symptoms.

Prof. Uri Sivan (left), president of the Technion, with Prof. Naama Geva-Zatorsky of the medicine faculty, at one of the Technion’s stations for coronavirus testing using saliva samples (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

“It’s basically a simplified version of the standard PCR test, but it uses an enzyme that makes the process simpler than normal,” Geva-Zatorsky told The Times of Israel. “It eliminates the need to purify the RNA, which is the genetic material from the sample, or use a complicated machine that would ‘amplify’ the RNA by using reagents and changing its temperature.”

Technion management say that breaking infection chains is particularly important for students still living in dormitories, despite the fact that the strict lockdown currently in Israel to fight the country’s rampant third wave has brought teaching to a halt.

The institution’s president Prof. Uri Sivan said that taking steps now to isolate sick students could well prove key to ensuring that the university can safely restart lectures once the lockdown lifts.

“Implementation of the novel technologies developed by Technion researchers will assist us in arresting the spread of the virus,” he commented. “And it will serve as a model for other places across the country.”

To take the test, students spit in a tube, scan the tube’s barcode, which allows them to track the results of their test, and place it in a refrigerator at a collection station.

A Technion student deposits a spit sample in a refrigerator, for a coronavirus test (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

Currently, as only dorm students are on-site due to the lockdown, only one station is operating and samples are collected once a day, but there will soon be several daily collections from four stations. It takes only a few minutes to get the samples to the lab, and results are expected to be delivered within a few hours.

This is the first major use of the technology, which is now being commercialized by the Rapid Diagnostic Systems startup.

Illustrative: An Indian COVID-19 patient provides samples to a medic helping Israel’s coronavirus mission to India. (Defense Ministry Spokesperson’s Office)

It was developed in collaboration with the research arm of the Defense Ministry and Rambam Health Care Campus.

The technology is one of several virus testing initiatives that used thousands of samples collected in India by an official Israeli delegation in August.

“Though it is less accurate than other tests, it’s very simple, easy to use, can be performed anywhere and is cheaper, so we think it’s worthwhile,” Geva-Zatorsky said.

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