A research team in the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy has developed a cheaper COVID-19 test that has the potential to be implemented throughout the community at large.

Angela Slitt, a biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences professor at URI, led the development of the new quantiCOVID-19 test, alongside students working in the lab. Their test is an alternative to the commonly-used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.  The team, along with Thermo Fisher Scientifics and Bio-Techne, developed the new test.

Their research began in March 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic. The research and testing was supported financially by the National Institutes of Health Superfund Research program in Slitt’s Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances lab.

“After we knew that Rhode Island had one of the first, not first, but it had one of the earliest COVID cases, we used a particular technology in the lab we felt could be useful to detect SARS-CoV-2,” Slitt said. 

The test is saliva-based, which makes it less intrusive in comparison to the PCR test, which is taken through the nose. According to Slitt, the quantiCOVID-19 test is comparable to the sensitivity level of PCR tests, making it an effective, comparable option.

The test is also a cheaper alternative to PCR tests. According to Naomi Pajarillo, a senior undergraduate student working in the lab, this is because the saliva test and analysis, also known as an assay, allows the lab to bypass the PCR step of the process, saving them time and resources. 

“[PCR] takes more time, more reagents, more lab work and then people get the results back later, because even if it’s not necessarily hard to do PCR, it just takes longer,” Pajarillo said. “Whereas our assay collects the saliva from the human sample, and then we incubate overnight …  We’re able to get detection methods right away like the second day. So we got it on the two-day assay, and we were able to shorten the time.”

The quantiCOVID-19 test is currently in the final stages of being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to Slitt. When approved, it is likely that the University will implement it into their surveillance testing methods Slitt said.

“We’re trying to find the copies of the material that makes SARS-CoV-2 infectious,” Pajarillo said. “And so, yes, you could still probably get some detection from like cheek swab or something. But it’s not the same as saliva because that comes from your upper respiratory tract and that’s where the virus is residing.” 

The quantiCOVID-19 test is currently in a clinical study with URI athletics that started after it was approved by the NCAA for surveillance testing and data collection, according to Slitt. She hopes to utilize the test throughout the community. Slitt said it would be a more “economical” method of testing for the University. However, the University administration is responsible for determining the method of surveillance testing at URI.

The team working on the test has distributed them to COVID-19 positive students isolating in the University’s hotels. Over the summer, the team took URI’s Mobile Health Unit to Pawtucket, Rhode Island where they distributed tests to collect samples.

Currently, the quantiCOVID-19 research team is waiting for FDA approval before potential widespread implementation. According to Slitt, there are currently only seven other saliva tests approved for detecting SARS-CoV-2, and they hope to be among them after the FDA approval process.