New Study Shows Effectiveness of Polyester Swabs and Saline Transportation for COVID-19 Testing, Improving Testing Efficiency and Flexibility, and Protecting Health Care Workers

April 16, 2020
  • Widely available polyester swabs and saline transportation are safe and reliable alternatives to foam swabs and viral transport media

  • New study builds on previously reported, less invasive nasal-testing procedure that reduces exposure for health care workers, preserves personal protective equipment and is better tolerated by patients

  • The FDA has updated its guidance based on this study to allow polyester swabs and saline transport media to be used for COVID-19 testing

A study led by UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) Research & Development and The Everett Clinic, part of Optum, revealed alternative swab materials and commonly available saline are effective for COVID-19 testing, providing more options for sample collection. These new findings, in conjunction with nasal sampling, allow for greater flexibility in obtaining samples, reduce the risk of infection to clinicians in collecting samples and can reduce the need for clinicians to use protective equipment.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has updated its guidance based on the UnitedHealth Group research, allowing patients nationwide to use polyester swabs instead of foam swabs and store tested swab samples in saline rather than traditional viral transport media. With ongoing challenges in obtaining test supplies around the world, proving the effectiveness of alternative materials introduces much-needed flexibility and increased capacity into COVID-19 testing.

“While foam nasal swabs can be used effectively, they are not as readily available as polyester swabs. Additionally, the supply of traditional viral transport media is limited,” said study lead Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, an infectious disease expert at The Everett Clinic, part of Optum. “This study further refines UnitedHealth Group and OptumCare research showing how a simple, patient-administered test can effectively and efficiently test for COVID-19 infections.”

With medical supplies limited and COVID-19 test kits not yet broadly available, expanding swab types and swab-transport processes are crucial to providing more options in efforts to detect COVID-19.

The traditional COVID-19 test regimen required a trained health care worker to collect samples from deep inside the patient’s nasal cavity using a nasopharyngeal swab. The process required the use of personal protective equipment, was uncomfortable for the patient and put unnecessary strain on the health care supply chain by requiring a specialized swab and specialized viral transport media. The patient-administered testing method is significantly less invasive, allowing patients to swab the front part of the nostril and mid-nose.

“We are leading several significant R&D projects on COVID-19,” said Ken Ehlert, chief scientific officer of UnitedHealth Group, parent company of Optum. “This research study substantially improves COVID-19 testing capacity by demonstrating that alternative materials and techniques can be used. Our second study at The Everett Clinic builds on our previous research that showed patients can successfully self-administer nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing. We are grateful to be partnering with a broad range of collaborators to advance community and national response efforts against COVID-19.”

The study was conducted in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We’re committed to working with partners to identify the simplest, most accessible solutions to obtaining an accurate COVID-19 test result,” said Dan Wattendorf, director of Innovative Technology Solutions, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Today’s FDA approval of spun polyester swabs for self-administered sample collection is another big step forward because these swabs can be readily manufactured and scaled, helping to overcome current shortages. The ultimate goal is to ensure that testing swabs will be readily available for self-administered sample collection at healthcare facilities, in workplaces and at home.”

About UnitedHealth Group

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) is a diversified health care company dedicated to helping people live healthier lives and helping to make the health system work better for everyone. UnitedHealth Group offers a broad spectrum of products and services through two distinct platforms: UnitedHealthcare, which provides health care coverage and benefits services; and Optum, which provides information and technology-enabled health services. For more information, visit UnitedHealth Group at or follow @UnitedHealthGrp on Twitter.