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BERKELEY (CBS SF) — UC Berkeley researchers announced Tuesday they have begun trials of a siliva test for COVID-19 that would eliminate the need for taking painful nasal swabs.

The announcement came from researchers with the Innovative Genomics Institute — the same group that rapidly popped up a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing laboratory in March.

If the procedure proves successful, researchers said the goal would be to have it place as a quick testing procedure for students and faculty members as they arrive back on campus for classes in the fall.

“At Berkeley, we hope to bring at least some of our undergraduate students back to campus safely in the fall, and one way to do that is to provide them with asymptomatic regular testing, so that we can be monitoring their health and insuring that they are not transmitting the virus,” said Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology who spearheaded the pop-up diagnostics lab and the saliva testing.

Campus volunteers began collecting saliva samples from a few hundred UC Berkeley employees on June 23 at kiosks set up in the breezeway of the Genetics and Plant Biology building.

“As opposed to swab testing, saliva testing is a lot simpler and allows people to literally spit into a tube,” Doudna said. “We think it will take about five or six minutes as they pass through our testing center here, so we hope to make this very painless, easy and simple for people to come by and get tested.”

The researchers then will analyze the saliva samples at a pop-up lab with results returned within five days. They said the quick test would allow them to identify asymptomatic students and facility members and isolate them in quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Using CRISPR-Cas proteins, Doudna and other researchers at the IGI are also working on an inexpensive and simpler point-of-care or home test that would give people results within minutes, without having to return saliva samples to a lab.

The researchers hope to analyze the results of the saliva tests and submit an application for an Emergency Use Authorization to the Food and Drug Administration, which would allow them to employ the saliva test clinically.

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As California tops 300,000 cases, delays, confusion hamper efforts to expand coronavirus testing

Public health officials and politicians repeatedly have touted widespread coronavirus testing as a key piece of containing the deadly pandemic and allowing Californians to get back to school, work, shopping and socializing.

But as California topped 300,000 cases on Thursday and reached records for average daily infections and deaths, an effort to dramatically expand the scope of testing appears to be cracking at the seams — hampered by supply shortages, mixed messaging, delayed testing results and a rash of new outbreaks.

And while the state is now conducting an average of around 106,000 coronavirus tests per day, up from 20,000 just a few months ago, that increase doesn’t tell the whole story.

Los Angeles this week actually narrowed its testing eligibility requirements. Nearby San Bernardino canceled hundreds of appointments for tests because of short supplies. Sacramento this week closed five sites in poor neighborhoods, pointing to a lack of supplies as the culprit.

From Kaiser to Stanford, major health care providers have warned that, once again, it is becoming harder to secure the supplies needed to test, which is in turn delaying crucial return times for results.

“With more and more states increasing their testing capability, scarce testing resources are being diverted at the national level and stretched even more thin, once again putting serious limits on the ability to expand testing,” Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser San Jose, said in a statement. “Testing labs around the country are reporting that their turnaround times for results have doubled in the last few weeks.”

Those climbing turnaround times, which can run more than a week, are putting a damper on everything from professional sports to family reunions. This week, the San Francisco Giants bailed on a practice scheduled for Tuesday because COVID-19 tests conducted Saturday still hadn’t been processed. Test processing delays also derailed the Oakland A’s first team workouts.

In some cases, tests are going missing altogether, leaving people wondering for weeks whether they have the highly infectious disease or not.

Convinced it would be too much of a hassle to go through his Kaiser doctor, David Whitlock initially got tested in late May at a government-backed site run by Verily, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. He said he sent five emails in June in an attempt to find out his results, but with no luck. Eventually, he was told to sign up for a new test under a different email because the system wouldn’t let him get retested under the original email without receiving a result.

Frustrated, he spotted a post on Nextdoor advertising free testing at El Camino Hospital and got tested there on Wednesday. He was told his results would be online in about five days.

“If I’m positive (there’s a) chance my kid is positive, and he’s going to summer camp right now,” Whitlock said. “And so I’m not going to want to infect his whole 12-kid summer camp and all those teachers and … that whole domino effect.”

Some universities have heralded “pooled testing” — where samples of multiple people are tested at once, with individual re-testing if a collection comes back positive — as a tool to help them reopen in the fall. But that has failed to materialize on any kind of large scale, with some major institutions such as Stanford Health Care still waiting on approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“This would greatly increase our testing capacity and ability to support ongoing surveillance testing of specific populations within the community where prevalence is expected to be low,” said Christina Kong, medical director and chief of pathology for Stanford Health Care.

And then there’s the griping and mixed messaging among local health officials, elected representatives and private testing providers.

Santa Clara County, which has offered free testing, published a new testing dashboard this week that suggests it is bearing the brunt of the testing burden and called on Kaiser, Sutter and other systems, which in many cases have restricted access and required doctor approval, to boost testing.

To great fanfare, hard-hit Los Angeles had advertised free COVID-19 testing to all residents — symptoms or not. But this week, under a crush of demand, it scaled back the offer. Its guidelines are now similar to Bay Area counties.

In Santa Clara County, the public health department mandates health care providers must test three groups: People with coronavirus symptoms, people who have had close contact with a person who tested positive, and those at higher risk of exposure because they work in front-line settings, ride mass transit or have attended a mass gathering, like a protest.

But that message is muddled by dueling opinions about who should be tested. On its website, Kaiser says it recommends “getting a diagnostic test if you currently have symptoms.” There is no mention of testing those who have attended protests or who ride BART every day.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, however, says just about everyone should be tested.

“It’s important we be crisp and clear and direct in our message: If you can get yourself tested, go do it,” he said during an interview the same day the county health department emailed a reporter outlining the three specific groups it says should be tested. “If we’re going to have people going back to work, they need to be tested as often as they can. If we’re going to have people reconnecting with their families, they need to be tested as often as they can.”

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All of it has left people confused and consumer advocates such as Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Health Access, frustrated. Wright understood restricting access to testing at the start of the pandemic, but now he wants to see easier and broader access to testing across the entire public and private health system.

“We’re going to need a strategy that goes beyond that,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to control this virus.”

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