Swab story: A game-changing COVID-19 test swab


Faced with potential shortages, a straightforward assignment — find more swabs — became a massive effort that involved numerous departments and experts, and culminated in Mayo Clinic designing, testing and manufacturing a new medical device.

This article is written by Mayo Clinic staff.


Swabs typically don’t attract much attention. Small, simple, inexpensive, used quickly and discarded, they hardly seem to merit the title of “medical device.” But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the lowly swab has gained enormous importance. Without it, testing grinds to a halt and detecting the virus becomes extremely difficult.

So when demand for swabs exploded last spring and supplies became scarce, Paul Jannetto, Ph.D., a laboratory director in Mayo Clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology who serves as vice chair of the department’s Supply Chain Management Committee, faced a serious problem.

There are two main manufacturers of flocked nasopharyngeal swabs — the standard swab for molecular SARS-CoV-2 testing. While the manufacturers worked to ramp up production to meet demand, Dr. Jannetto and his colleagues in Supply Chain Management were tasked with the job of looking for alternative vendors and swab types.

What sounded like a straightforward assignment — find more swabs — became a massive effort that involved numerous departments and experts, and culminated in Mayo Clinic for the first time designing, testing and mass-manufacturing a new medical device listed with the Food and Drug Administration: the 3D-printed mid-turbinate swab.

That achievement reinforced a critical link in the supply chain, allowing Mayo Clinic to press forward with confidence as it develops an at-home COVID-19 test and easing the burden on health care teams that administer in-person tests.

Uncovering an appealing alternative

One of the first people to weigh in on the swab dilemma was Bobbi Pritt, M.D., chair of Mayo’s Division of Clinical Microbiology. She knew from previous research that nasal mid-turbinate swabs could be as effective as nasopharyngeal swabs in detecting viral infections of the upper respiratory tract.

Dr. Pritt saw benefits to pursuing the use of mid-turbinate swabs. First, they are more comfortable for patients because they don’t need to reach as far back into the nasal passage as nasopharyngeal swabs to obtain a sample.

Read the rest of the article on Mayo Clinic Laboratories Insights.


Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date

For more information and all your COVID-19 coverage, go to the Mayo Clinic News Network and mayoclinic.org.

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