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Yale researchers find a simple nasal swab can detect emerging viruses

Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Community Health Center Inc. is a federally qualified health center. It runs several COVID-19 testing sites, including this drive thru site in the parking lot at the Koppell Community Sports Center at Trinity College. A vile with a swab test is shown.

Researchers at Yale have developed a nasal swab kit that can detect rare, dangerous viruses that escape standard testing. The results, published in the journal the Lancet Microbe, Jan 1, could help detect viruses – and bacteria – before they turn into a pandemic.

Dr. Ellen Foxman, associate professor of Laboratory Medicine and Immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, pored over a ton of mucus before she made an astounding discovery.

“We took all the samples that tested negative for viruses and we asked: ‘In these patients, did the body think that it was fighting a virus?’” Foxman said. “And the way we could do that is by eavesdropping on the immune response in the nose.”

Turns out, the cells in the lining of our noses can sniff out rare viruses. And when they do, they turn on certain defenses. Foxman measured those defensive responses and found a couple of sneaky, lurking viruses that went previously undetected: Influenza C and COVID-19, early on in the pandemic.

“Each of those viral islets was distinct, showing that [through] multiple different avenues, the (coronavirus) was entering Connecticut,” she said. “It’s almost guaranteed that there’ll be another emerging virus. Can we find that early enough to develop tests and vaccines very early on so that we can reduce the level of impact, and reduce the level of disruption like what we saw in the last few years?”

The hope is to get the nasal swab kits to primary care clinics in the next five years. The kits are currently in use at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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