Skin swabs could be sufficient for detecting COVID-19

Skin swabs could be sufficient for detecting COVID-19
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New research has demonstrated that non-invasive skin swabs could be sufficient for detecting COVID-19.

A team of researchers at the University of Surrey have teamed up with Frimley NHS Trust and the Universities of Manchester and Leicester to analyse sebum samples from swabbed skin areas to test the efficacy of non-invasive skin swab for detecting COVID-19.

Currently, the most used testing approach for COVID-19 uses a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which takes swabs from the back of the throat and far inside the nose.

Dr George Evetts, Consultant in Anaesthesia & Intensive Care Medicine at Frimley Park Hospital, said: “Investigating new methods of diagnosis and surveillance in a new disease such as COVID-19 that has had such a devastating effect on the world is vital. Sebum sampling is a simple, non-invasive method that shows promise for both diagnostics and monitoring of the disease in both a healthcare and a non-healthcare setting.”

The paper has been published by The Lancet in E Clinical Medicine.

Non-invasive swabbing

For the study, the researchers collected samples from 67 hospitalised patients by swabbing a skin area rich in sebum – an oily substance produced by the body’s sebaceous glands – such as the face, neck or back. The samples cam from 30 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 and 37 who had tested negative.

The samples were analysed using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry and a statistical modelling technique called Partial Least Squares – Discriminant Analysis to differentiate between the COVID-19 positive and negative samples, finding that patients with a positive COVID-19 test had lower lipid levels than those with a negative test.

Dr Melanie Bailey, co-author of the study from the University of Surrey, said: “Unfortunately, the spectre of future pandemics is firmly on the top of the agenda for the scientific community. Our study suggests that we may be able to use non-invasive means to test for diseases such as COVID-19 in the future – a development which I am sure will be welcomed by all.”

The accuracy of the study’s results increased further when medication and additional health conditions were controlled.

Matt Spick, co-author of the study from the University of Surrey, said: “COVID-19 damages many areas of metabolism. In this work, we show that the skin lipidome can be added to the list, which could have implications for the skin’s barrier function, as well as being a detectable symptom of the disease itself.”

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