Skin swabs could detect COVID-19

COVID-19 could be detected through non-invasive skin swab samples, new research published by the Universities of Leicester, Surrey and Manchester has revealed today.

In a study run in partnership with Frimley NHS Trust, patients with a positive COVID-19 test were shown to have lower lipid levels - or dyslipidemia - than patients who tested negative.

Skin samples from 67 hospitalised patients (30 who had tested positive for COVID-19 and 37 who had tested negative) were collected by gently swabbing a skin area rich in sebum - an oily, waxy substance produced by the body's sebaceous glands - such as the face, neck or back.

Dr Michael Wilde, Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) Fellow at the University of Leicester, said:

“The data provides evidence that the wide range of effects caused by systemic diseases, such as COVID-19, are reflected in the skin biochemistry and lipid profiles on the skin surface. This work shows great promise and I am excited to be collaborating with Surrey and Manchester on cutting-edge research. To develop this technique further larger studies are required.”

The researchers analysed the samples by using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry and a statistical modelling technique called Partial Least Squares – Discriminant Analysis to differ-entiate between the COVID-19 positive and negative samples.

The accuracy of the study’s results increased further when medication and additional health conditions were controlled.

The most widely used approach to testing for COVID-19 requires a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which involves taking a swab of the back of the throat and far inside the nose. This type of test is commonly used, but could from a significant proportion of false-negative results.

Dr Melanie Bailey, co-author of the study from the University of Surrey, said: "Unfortunately, the spectre of future pandemics is firmly on the top of the agenda for the scientific community.

“Our study suggests that we may be able to use non-invasive means to test for diseases such as COVID-19 in the future - a development which I am sure will be welcomed by all."

The paper was published in Lancet E Clinical Medicine.