A weekly coronavirus testing regime using a "no-swab" saliva test is being trialled in southern England and could result in a simpler and quicker way to detect outbreaks of the virus, the British government said on Monday.
"Saliva testing could potentially make it even easier for people to take coronavirus tests at home, without having to use swabs," said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
"This trial will also help us learn if routine, at-home testing could pick up cases of the virus earlier."
The tests do not use the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, which experts say can miss cases because of errors in collecting samples from the back of the throat using a long nasopharyngeal swab.
Instead a different technique, called RT-Lamp, is used in the trial's saliva test, which the government said had already be shown to be highly promising.
The pilot programme will involve further validation of the technique against PCR nasal swabs, it said.
More than 14,000 doctors and health workers, other essential workers and university staff and their households in the city of Southampton will participate in the trial, which uses a test developed by British firm Optigene, the government said.
Rather than taking a swab, which some people find uncomfortable, participants will spit into a pot. Test results will be received within 48 hours, the government said.
The pilot will be jointly led by Southampton City Council, the University of Southampton, and the state-run health service, alongside a wider network of public services in Hampshire.
Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of at-home saliva tests to detect the virus in the United States.
The British government said it was also exploring the potential of other no-swab saliva based coronavirus tests with companies including Chronomics, Avacta, MAP Science and Oxford Nanoimaging (ONI).
It said it was also working with suppliers including DNA Genotek, International Scientific Supplies Ltd, Isohelix and other leading manufacturers, to develop bespoke saliva collection kits and scale up manufacturing for products that can be used with existing PCR tests.
The pilot will run for up to four weeks, testing people on a weekly basis, the government said, resulting in a total of 33,000 – 40,000 tests in the programme.