Comparison of Nasopharyngeal and Saliva Swab Nucleic Acid Amplification and Rapid Antigen Testing To Detect Omicron SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern: a Prospective Clinical Trial (OMICRON)

Microbiol Spectr. 2022 Dec 21;10(6):e0392322. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.03923-22. Epub 2022 Nov 8.


In November 2021, the World Health Organization declared the Omicron variant (B.1.1.519) a variant of concern. Since then, worries have been expressed regarding the ability of usual diagnostic tests to detect the Omicron variant. In addition, some recently published data suggested that the salivary reverse transcription (RT)-PCR might perform better than the current gold standard, nasopharyngeal (NP) RT-PCR. In this study, we aimed to compare the sensitivities of nasopharyngeal and saliva RT-PCR and assess the diagnostic performances of rapid antigen testing (RAT) in nasopharyngeal and saliva samples. We conducted a prospective clinical study among symptomatic health care professionals consulting the occupational health service of our hospital for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) screening and hospitalized patients in internal medicine/intensive care wards screened for SARS-CoV-2 with COVID-19-compatible symptoms. A composite outcome considering NP PCR and/or saliva PCR was used as a reference standard to define COVID-19 cases. A total of 475 paired NP/saliva specimens have been collected with a positivity rate of 40% (n = 192). NP and salivary RT-PCR exhibited sensitivities of 98% (95% CI, 94 to 99%) and 87% (95% CI, 81 to 91%), respectively, for outpatients (n = 453) and 94% (95% CI, 72 to 99%) and 69% (95% CI, 44 to 86%), respectively, for hospitalized patients (n = 22). Nasopharyngeal rapid antigen testing exhibited much lower diagnostic performances (sensitivity of 66% and 31% for outpatients and inpatients, respectively), while saliva RAT showed a sensitivity of less than 5% in both groups. Nasopharyngeal RT-PCR testing remains the gold standard for SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant screening. Salivary RT-PCR can be used as an alternative in case of contraindication to perform NP sampling. The use of RAT should be limited to settings where access to molecular diagnostic methods is lacking. IMPORTANCE The Omicron variant of concern spread rapidly since it was first reported in November 2021 and currently accounts for the vast majority of new infections worldwide. Recent reports suggest that saliva sampling might outweigh nasopharyngeal sampling for the diagnosis of the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, data investigating the best diagnostic strategy specifically for the Omicron variant of concern remain scarce. This study fills this gap in current knowledge and elucidates the question of which strategy to use in which patient. It provides a new basis for further improving COVID-19 screening programs and managing patients suspected to have COVID-19.

Keywords: Omicron variant; RT-PCR; SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis; nasopharyngeal swab; rapid antigen testing; saliva swab.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Nucleic Acids*
  • Prospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics
  • Saliva
  • Specimen Handling


  • Nucleic Acids

Supplementary concepts

  • SARS-CoV-2 variants