Saliva as a Biospecimen in the Era of COVID-19
Background: In recent decades, the integration of salivary bioscience and psychological science has had a profound impact on our understanding of the interactions between the psychological, social, and physiological factors of health (e.g., Hoyt & Zimmerman, 2020). In addition to its relevance to a wide range of research topics within psychological science—from the psychobiology of the stress response, to studies of genetics and environmental chemicals—saliva boasts a number of practical advantages as a biospecimen as well. It’s not only easy to collect in the lab, but its portability allows samples to be collected in the context of people’s everyday social worlds. In addition, repeated samplings can be obtained from the same individual with low participant burden, and samples can even be self-collected in the field and returned by mail.
Enter the disruptor—the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to 2020, another advantage of saliva as a biospecimen was safety. The US Centers for Disease Control did not consider saliva as a class II biohazard unless visibly contaminated with blood, meaning it could be tested and collected without the use of universal precautions such as lab coats, gloves, and eye protection in the field (2000). At the time of writing, however, it is understood that transmission of COVID-19 occurs through human contact with nasal secretions, respiratory droplets (aerosols) from breath, and saliva.
For now, the majority of academic research not related to COVID-19 has been indefinitely suspended. But when the world comes back online, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be a major disruption to the research enterprise. Certainly, there will be a new “normal” for salivary bioscience in particular. A new set of best practices for the collection, handling, transport, and assay of saliva samples will be essential.
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