COVID-19 surveillance testing using the "Quickstick" saliva testing method. Photo by Joe Johnston/University Photographer/Cal Poly 3-5-21

Cal Poly faculty developed saliva-based COVID-19 testing technology that students have used on campus since February 2021. Now, those saliva tests will be brought to market. 

Nathaniel Martinez, associate professor of biological studies, and Andres Martinez, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, developed microfluidic paper-based analytical devices (microPADs) for low-cost and portable diagnostic applications, according to a Cal Poly press release from December 2021.

The faculty partnered with Santa Maria-based medical device manufacturer Hardy Diagnostics, which manufactures more than 2,700 products for the culture and identification of bacteria and fungi. 

The testing technology, a strip that collects a saliva sample from the mouth in 30 seconds, was developed to streamline on-campus testing for Cal Poly students and employees. Students currently being tested for COVID-19 at the University Union are tested with this method, according to the saliva testing page on Cal Poly’s Coronavirus Information website. 

This testing method is less invasive than the nasal swab method of COVID-19 testing and has reduced the workload required to run the tests. 

“When placed in one’s mouth, the device automatically absorbs the exact amount of saliva required for the test and excludes potential contaminants like mucus,” Nathaniel Martinez said in the press release. “Thanks to the improved quality of samples and consistency of sample size, the tests can be run more efficiently.”

Student opinion on the saliva testing method varies. When asked their preference between the Cal Poly saliva testing and common nasal swab testing methods through social media, the scale of university testing, comfort and accuracy were considered.

“I think the saliva test is quicker so it’s better for the mass student body,” computer engineering senior Mina Dedijer said.

Biochemistry freshman Berkeley Wayne also said she prefers the saliva test.

“I like the saliva strips better, I have nose rings so the nose swabs can be a bit uncomfortable,” Wayne said.

One student on social media questioned how “licking a piece of paper” could yield accurate results. But Cal Poly has said the saliva testing method is highly accurate and precise. 

Before the implementation of the saliva testing on campus last year, Cal Poly and Kevin Ferguson, a Santa Maria pathologist who advises Cal Poly’s COVID-19 response plans, conducted tests to validate this new form of testing. Preliminary results from Cal Poly’s test conformed closely to Ferguson’s results from the same samples, yielding a 93% sensitivity rate and a 97% specificity rate, meaning the saliva testing method is highly accurate and precise, according to information included in a Cal Poly News story from March 2021. 

“The device was developed and refined for SARS-CoV-2 virus, but our team quickly realized it could also function as a platform saliva collection device for testing a panel of other viruses in the future,” Jim Dunning, Cal Poly’s associate vice president of Corporate Engagement and Innovation, said in the press release. “We found a fantastic local partner in Hardy Diagnostics to scale this technology for the greatest public good.” 

Through a license agreement with the university, Hardy Diagnostics will further develop the device for commercialization and bring it to market. The date for when the microPADs will be on the public market has not been announced. 

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