AU cranks out saliva tests on path toward COVID-19 vaccine

Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 7:13 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - At the drive-thru testing site, Augusta University Health is taking hundreds of saliva samples a day, working out the kinks and preparing for potentially more cases.

Dr. Ravindra Kolhe with the GEM Lab at the Medical College of Georgia says his saliva tests have passed his test. They’re ready for whatever may come.

“We have secured around 100,000 tests for the community, and we are still doing a thousand plus tests every day,” he said.

So far, they’ve done 9,000+ saliva tests at their drive-thru testing site. Those tests go to Dr. Brandy Gunsolus at the clinical science lab who helps process them.

“There’s been some challenges with the education and getting that education out,” Gunsolus said.

She says the tests are 98 or 99 percent accurate, but only if it’s true saliva.

“When we say saliva, what we mean is that spit,” Gunsolus said. “Sputum is that gunk that is way down in your lungs. It’s really chunky. That’s not saliva.”

It’s also called mucus, and they also patients are eating, drinking, or smoking before getting tested.

“There’s a few individuals who are unable to produce saliva on-demand,” Kolhe said.

About 3 percent of tests are invalid, but that’s not all Kolhe is trying to manage. His team is doing a frontline worker study with the National Institutes of Health, in which St. Jude, UCLA and UGA are also involved.

“We are asking two questions: how long that antibody is in the individual? How long does it prevent reinfection?” Dr. Kolhe said.

Their goal is to collect saliva and blood tests from 1,500 front-line workers every two weeks for a year. In the long run, that data will help improve a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Understand why some people are producing these really good antibodies and can we replicate that in vaccine preparations?” Kolhe said.

AU says any frontline worker can be involved with their study. That means anyone from healthcare workers to someone who works at a grocery store.

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