China Is Testing For Covid With Anal Swabs. Will The UK Follow?

The test involves inserting a cotton-tipped swab roughly 1-2 inches into the rectum.

We’re used to the idea of uncomfortable nose and throat swabs to test for Covid-19, but could an anal swab test for the virus be on the horizon?

Anal swab tests have been conducted among residents at high risk of contracting the virus in some neighbourhoods in Beijing, as well as in quarantine facilities, according to reports from China’s state broadcaster.

The test involves inserting a cotton-tipped swab roughly 1-2 inches into the rectum, Forbes reported. The swab is then sent off to be tested for the virus. It’s thought this particular method won’t be used as widely as others, however, due to it being quite inconvenient.

A senior doctor from Beijing’s Youan hospital told state broadcaster CCTV this method of swabbing could be better at detecting the virus, as traces of it linger longer in the anus than in the respiratory tract.

Li Tongzeng, deputy director of the respiratory and infectious diseases department at Beijing You An Hospital, said the anal swabs could also be better at identifying the virus in people with mild symptoms, or those who don’t have any symptoms at all.

Scientists in the UK aren’t so sure of the method. Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and expert in molecular oncology from Warwick Medical School, tells HuffPost UK: “I’m not convinced about the value of anal swabs for Covid.”

Previous studies have shown prolonged RT-PCR detection of the virus which causes Covid-19 in anal swabs in Covid patients after nasal swabs have tested negative. But this is because the RT-PCR detects viral RNA and not infectious virus, says Prof Young.

“This means that the test can detect degraded fragments of the viral RNA and this is very likely what’s being detected in anal swabs – the degraded viral RNA can hang around after an individual has stopped shedding virus from their nose and throat.”

So basically, you could have bits of the virus lingering in your rectum, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re infectious at this point.

“There’s no real value in this approach, in my opinion,” adds Prof Young.

With that in mind, you’ll be pleased to know HuffPost UK has learned that NHS Test and Trace has no plans to introduce anal swabbing to detect coronavirus in the UK.

Currently, it has the capacity to process more than 790,000 PCR tests and hundreds of thousands of lateral flow tests every single day – although the latter tests have been the subject of much scepticism over their accuracy.