Nasal Swabs Could Help Identify Emerging Viruses, Yale Researchers Say

The researchers are looking for little known viruses in certain samples to try to identify new diseases before they become a threat.

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The researchers are looking for little known viruses in certain samples to try to identify new diseases before they become a threat.

In the early days of COVID-19, the virus was spreading quickly while we knew very little about it. Now, Yale researchers say they have found a new way to pinpoint emerging viruses and diseases before they become a major public threat.

They are testing nasal swabs.

Due to the arrival of COVID-19, most people have swabbed their noses to test for the virus at this stage of the pandemic.

“Oh yeah definitely, several times,” David Tognalli, of West Hartford, said.

“I had a lot of them because I was traveling early in the pandemic for work,” Erin Snyder Storin, of West Hartford, said.

Now researchers at Yale School of Medicine say those nasal swabs could help us learn more about emerging diseases.

“COVID came as a surprise. All of the sudden, there was an outbreak, and people discovered that there was a new virus that could cause an illness,” Dr. Ellen Foxman, Yale School of Medicine immunologist, said. “What we want to do going forward is be able to get ahead of that.”

When someone has a suspected respiratory infection, they get a nasal swab, and that sample will test for about 15 known viruses.

Foxman says in her research, she noticed that some samples came back negative, yet still had an antiviral protein that showed the body was fighting off a virus.

“What if no virus is found? Does that mean there's no virus out there causing your illness? Not necessarily,” Foxman said.

The scientists can then zero in on that sample to search for emerging viruses.

“The goal of this test was to find out, how do you figure out amongst all those people who are testing negative, who might have a virus that you're not expecting?” Foxman said. “The way that we can figure that out is we develop this test to look for whether the body is fighting a virus, whether the nose thinks there's a virus there. And that's how we can catch viruses that we're not expecting.”

As part of their research, Foxman’s team re-tested several old nasal samples from March 2020, when COVID-19 had surfaced in New York but testing was not readily available.

A few negative tests had the tell-tale antiviral protein, and among those samples, the team found four cases of undiagnosed COVID-19.

“If there's another outbreak of another virus in the future, we want to be able to find it as soon as possible so we can start making vaccines and tests quickly,” Foxman said.

Most anyone who has taken a nasal swab test can relate to the uncomfortable feeling.

“It’s a foreign feeling! There’s a little sharpness to it,” Tognalli said.

However these nasal swabs could help pinpoint samples that scientists can study to identify dangerous diseases before they evolve into a pandemic or other serious threats.

“I’m all for any new developments in science and detecting viruses. I think that sounds really great,” Snyder Storin said.

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