No more nasal swabs? Skin test proves ‘surprisingly effective’ at detecting COVID-19

GUILDFORD, United Kingdom — Skin swabs could soon put an end to annoying and sometimes painful nasal swabs for COVID-19. Researchers from the University of Surrey found that testing for changes in the fats and oils in a patient’s skin is “surprisingly effective” at screening for coronavirus.

Study authors explain that a non-invasive swab can collect sebum from a person’s skin and detect COVID with nearly 90-percent accuracy — potentially ending the “brain-tickling” nasal test for the virus. In a study of 83 hospitalized patients, including some with COVID-19, researchers collected blood, saliva, and skin samples for a comparative review.

COVID-19 has shown us that rapid testing is vital in monitoring and identifying new illnesses. In our research, we explored the relationships between different biofluids, and what changes in one part of the human body can tell us about the overall health of a patient,” says Professor Melanie Bailey in a university release.

“Our results show that, while blood is the most accurate way of testing for this virus, skin swabs are not too far behind – in fact, the skin swab results were surprisingly accurate.”

How do you find COVID in a person’s skin?

Sebum is an oily and waxy substance produced by the body’s sebaceous glands. The virus significantly changes the makeup of a patient’s lipids in a number of different bodily fluids, including both blood and sebum.

After measuring the changes in lipids and other metabolites in these samples, results show the skin swabs produce an 0.88 accuracy score when testing for COVID. A score of 1.0 would be the most accurate and sensitive to the virus.

Blood produced a score of 0.97 and saliva actually scored lower than a skin swab, coming in at 0.80.

“Our research suggests that skin sebum responds to changes to the immune system in COVID-19 patients. In fact, we believe that illness can alter the body’s natural balance across the whole range of biological systems, including skin, digestive health and others. This can help us identify and understand illness better by providing a whole-body atlas of a disease,” says study co-author and research student Matt Spick.

“The work we demonstrate in this study that profiles metabolites in three different biofluids (serum, saliva and sebum) offers promise in distinguishing people positive for COVID-19 from people negative for COVID-19. The promise of a non-invasive test for Covid-19 is a reason for much of society to rejoice,” adds co-author and Section Lead of Chronobiology Professor Debra Skene.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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