Saliva Testing Is Accurate for Early-Stage and Presymptomatic COVID-19

Abigail J. Johnson, Shannon Zhou, Susan L. Hoops, Benjamin Hillmann, Matthew Schomaker, Robyn Kincaid, Jerry Daniel, Kenneth Beckman, Daryl M. Gohl, Sophia Yohe, Dan Knights, Andrew C. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Although nasopharyngeal samples have been considered the gold standard for COVID-19 testing, variability in viral load across different anatomical sites could cause nasopharyngeal samples to be less sensitive than saliva or nasal samples in certain cases. Self-collected samples have logistical advantages over nasopharyngeal samples, making them amenable to population-scale screening. To evaluate sampling alternatives for population screening, we collected nasopharyngeal, saliva, and nasal samples from two cohorts with varied levels and types of symptoms. In a mixed cohort of 60 symptomatic and asymptomatic participants, we found that saliva had 88% concordance with nasopharyngeal samples when tested in the same testing lab (n = 41) and 68% concordance when tested in different testing labs (n = 19). In a second cohort of 20 participants hospitalized for COVID-19, saliva had 74% concordance with nasopharyngeal samples tested in the same testing lab but detected virus in two participants that tested negative with nasopharyngeal samples on the same day. Medical record review showed that the saliva-based testing sensitivity was related to the timing of symptom onset and disease stage. We find that no sample site will be perfectly sensitive for COVID-19 testing in all situations, and the significance of negative results will always need to be determined in the context of clinical signs and symptoms. Saliva retained high clinical sensitivity for early-stage and presymptomatic COVID-19 while allowing easier collection, minimizing the exposure of health care workers, and need for personal protective equipment and making it a viable option for population-scale testing. IMPORTANCE Methods for COVID-19 detection are necessary for public health efforts to monitor the spread of disease. Nasopharyngeal samples have been considered the best approach for COVID-19 testing. However, alternative samples like self-collected saliva offer advantages for population-scale screening. Meta-analyses of recent studies suggest that saliva is useful for detecting SARS-CoV-2; however, differences in disease prevalence, sample collection, and analysis methods still confound strong conclusions on the utility of saliva compared to nasopharyngeal samples. Here, we find that the sensitivity of saliva testing is related to both the timing of the sample collection relative to symptom onset and the disease stage. Importantly, several clinical vignettes in our cohorts highlight the challenges of medical decision making with limited knowledge of the associations between laboratory test data and the natural biology of infection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalMicrobiology Spectrum
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by University of Minnesota Office of the Vice President for Research COVID19 rapid response grant number 06 to D.K.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. Johnson et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • saliva
  • symptoms
  • testing

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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