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If you thought nasal COVID-19 tests were bad, you’re going to hate this

Published Jan 31st, 2021 9:02AM EST
Coronavirus Anal Swab Test
Image: Microgen/Adobe

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  • Chinese health officials have announced a new coronavirus test procedure that yields more accurate results than nasal and throat swabs.
  • Research has shown that anal swabs return positive COVID-19 diagnoses even when nasal and throat samples test negative.
  • Despite the backlash, China wants to use the procedure. It’s part of a massive effort to prevent new outbreaks following the Lunar New Year holiday travel and celebrations next month.

The key to beating COVID-19 is accurate, fast testing. The sooner the positive diagnosis is confirmed, the faster the necessary steps can be taken to limit the spread of the illness and prevent complications. Some people will only need to self-isolate and wait for whatever symptoms to subside. Others will need hospitalization and treatment, and some therapies are only effective if given early in the illness.

Testing for the novel coronavirus isn’t as problematic as it used to be at the beginning of the pandemic. PCR tests are still the most trusted COVID-19 tests, but other alternatives can also deliver a quick early diagnosis. There is one problem with COVID-19 testing regardless of method. Done too early after exposure, it can deliver false-negative results.

Chinese officials think there’s one way to improve COVID-19 testing, although it’s a procedure that people won’t like. Rather than using throat swabs, China is now advocating in favor of anal swab tests, which can deliver more accurate results.

Anal swab testing is recommended to people in quarantine in China, The Washington Post reports. The country is fighting small outbreaks ahead of the year’s busiest travel period, the Chinese New Year. Officials worry that undetected infection might spark additional outbreaks in the country.

Despite the various missteps in the first days of the Wuhan epidemic, China contained the outbreaks that followed in a way no other country could. Massive testing campaigns were conducted whenever new cases were discovered, with officials looking to nip the spread in the bud. Anal swabs might help with that, especially in some categories of patients.

Chinese state media has already detailed the new protocol, prompting criticism in the country. Chinese doctors say the science is there, as recovering patients continue to test positive in samples from the lower digesting tract even though nasal and throat swabs come back negative. Anal swab testing could help officials determine whether a person might still be a danger to others in the final days of their COVID-19 convalescence.

Despite the outrage, anal swabs will not be widely used to test the general population. “If we add anal swab testing, it can raise our rate of identifying infected patients,” infectious-disease specialist Dr. Li Tongzeng said on state-run CCTV. “But of course, considering that collecting anal swabs is not as convenient as throat swabs, at the moment, only key groups such as those in quarantine receive both.”

The Chinese CDC has guidelines on how to collect the samples as of March 2020. If a stool sample can’t be taken from patients, then an anal swab will be required, which involves the insertion of a cotton-tipped stick one to two inches into the rectum. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, but digestive symptoms have been observed in many patients.

China is taking additional measures to prevent the next month’s Lunar New Year holiday from sparking new outbreaks. Beijing initiated new lockdowns affecting tens of thousands in areas where isolated outbreaks occurred. Travelers returning to the country need to quarantine for two weeks at hotels. The Post says that a week of home quarantine and a week of daily reports to health officials have been added to the list of preventive measures. Moreover, China wants to vaccinate some 50 million people before the holiday.

China has long lauded its efforts to contain the pandemic, and the new measures are in line with Beijing’s previous decisive actions to reduce transmission. At the same time, several highly infectious strains are roaming the planet, including the UK, South African, and Brazilian strains. Of those, the South African version might impact vaccine effectiveness.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.