Detection of SARS-CoV-2 from Saliva as Compared to Nasopharyngeal Swabs in Outpatients

Viruses. 2020 Nov 17;12(11):1314. doi: 10.3390/v12111314.


Widely available and easily accessible testing for COVID-19 is a cornerstone of pandemic containment strategies. Nasopharyngeal swabs (NPS) are the currently accepted standard for sample collection but are limited by their need for collection devices and sampling by trained healthcare professionals. The aim of this study was to compare the performance of saliva to NPS in an outpatient setting. This was a prospective study conducted at three centers, which compared the performance of saliva and NPS samples collected at the time of assessment center visit. Samples were tested by real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction and sensitivity and overall agreement determined between saliva and NPS. Clinical data was abstracted by chart review for select study participants. Of the 432 paired samples, 46 were positive for SARS-CoV-2, with seven discordant observed between the two sample types (four individuals testing positive only by NPS and three by saliva only). The observed agreement was 98.4% (kappa coefficient 0.91) and a composite reference standard demonstrated sensitivity of 0.91 and 0.93 for saliva and NPS samples, respectively. On average, the Ct values obtained from saliva as compared to NPS were higher by 2.76. This study demonstrates that saliva performs comparably to NPS for the detection of SARS-CoV-2. Saliva was simple to collect, did not require transport media, and could be tested with equipment readily available at most laboratories. The use of saliva as an acceptable alternative to NPS could support the use of widespread surveillance testing for SARS-CoV-2.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; nasopharyngeal swab; saliva.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19 / diagnosis*
  • COVID-19 Nucleic Acid Testing*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Limit of Detection
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasopharynx / virology*
  • Ontario
  • Outpatients / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prospective Studies
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification*
  • Saliva / virology*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Specimen Handling


  • RNA, Viral