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New test allows people to swab for coronavirus on surfaces in public places

NBC's Vicky Nguyen put a new product to the test that its makers say can indicate within 48 hours whether any surface contains the virus that causes COVID-19.
/ Source: TODAY

The makers of a new test say that you can use a simple swab to find out in 48 hours if any surface is contaminated with the virus that causes COVID-19.

NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen got an exclusive look on TODAY Thursday at a product that could help businesses and schools identify what surfaces may contain SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, and determine if someone may be shedding the virus in that area.

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Health experts say the primary mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through inhaling respiratory droplets from someone who is sick. Contaminated surfaces are not the main cause of coronavirus spreading, but testing the surfaces could provide more information about whether people infected with COVID-19 have been inside a school or business even if they're not showing symptoms.

This test kit by the San Francisco-based company Phylagen allows people to swab surfaces for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
This test kit by the San Francisco-based company Phylagen allows people to swab surfaces for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. TODAY

Nguyen used the swabs from the San Francisco-based company Phylagen, which sells them in a 10-pack for $400, and collected samples from around New York City. She took swabs from frequently-touched surfaces like handrails, elevator buttons and door handles, and tested surfaces in high-traffic areas like a subway station, coffee shop, public restroom and grocery store.

Using the product entails dipping a swab in the company's solution and then swabbing any surface you want to test. You then snap the top of the swab off in a sample tube and send it to the company's laboratory.

Nguyen also wore gloves and long sleeves to make sure the samples did not get contaminated. NBC News producers also took swabs in four other states, including California and Florida, where cases have dramatically risen in the last month.

The results, which were returned 48 hours after shipping the samples, found that Florida had by far the highest level of positive results. Nearly 20% of the samples taken in Miami were positive.

Swabs of an elevator, a garbage chute handle, an ATM and a restaurant tablecloth came back positive for the new coronavirus.

NBC News' Vicky Nguyen swabbed a number of public areas in various states.
NBC News' Vicky Nguyen swabbed a number of public areas in various states.TODAY

The samples taken from New York returned two positive hits from a grocery cart handle and a self-serve bread bin.

All the swabs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey came back negative, and swabs from a gas pump, bus seat handle and an elevator button in an office building in California also came back negative.

Overall, 6% of the samples taken at indoor locations came back positive, which is within the 5% to 20% range predicted by Phylagen for that type of surface testing.

"It's reassuring to know that some of our prevention measures are working," Dr. Tista Ghosh, an epidemiologist and former chief medical officer of Colorado's state health department, told Nguyen on TODAY.

"And that we're not seeing coronavirus in places like the mail or on certain public restrooms. While I'm definitely surprised by that, I think that's good news."

The test isn't designed to replace cleaning surfaces, but instead can be used as a tool to tell whether someone in that space is sick and shedding virus.

However, just knowing the positive result may not tell the whole story.

"The limitations are that you really don't know how much of the virus is there," Ghosh said. "And you don't know if it's dead or alive. So you don't know if it can actually infect somebody or not."

Dr. Jessica Green, a co-founder of Phylagen and indoor microbiology expert, says the tests are useful because regularly swabbing areas and seeing a spike in positive hits could particularly let indoor places like schools and businesses know that people there are infected even if they're not showing symptoms.

"This type of test could be used in schools, in nursing homes, hotels, restaurants, industrial manufacturing environments, theme parks," Green said.