McMaster innovations in respiratory illness swabbing

McMaster HealthLabs benefits from the expertise of world-renowned scientists and researchers who have made significant contributions to advance testing for infectious disease. Dr. Marek Smieja, McMaster HealthLab’s Scientific Director, was part of the team that developed the Gold Standard swab for testing respiratory illness.

The Flocked Swab – COPAN Swab
Gold Standard Test for COVID-19 and Respiratory Illness

The gold standard swab used for testing respiratory illness had its humble beginnings at the labs of at the Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton and McMaster University.

In 2006, Dr. Marek Smieja, McMaster HealthLab’s Scientific Director, was one of four McMaster researchers who discovered that a flocked swab was better than a rayon swab at collecting respiratory virus samples.1 The flocked swab is not a typical cotton ear bud swab. Instead, it has various sized tips with short nylon fibers that stick out to collect the virus. The swab is connected to a skinny stick that is inserted through the nose and can extend to one’s ear.

The flocked swab collects more cells than a rayon swab – ensuring more rapid and accurate testing – and releases those cells more easily into a transport media, which collects the sample for testing.

The flocked swab – commonly known as the Copan swab after its main manufacturer – is the standard swab for COVID-19 and all respiratory virus collection around the world.

Self-Administered Nasal Swab
Approved by the U.S. FDA for COVID-19 Testing in March 2020

Building on their work to create the flocked swab, McMaster scientists and researchers designed and evaluated a novel swab, with which patients can self-test, without the direct help of medical personnel.

In a study supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, it was determined that nasal self-testing was preferred to staff collection.2

The study found that self-collected flocked nasal swabs were equivalent to staff-collected nasal swabs, and superior to rayon nasal swabs. The swab is described as a “nasal mid-turbinate” because it does not need to extend all the way up into the nose towards the ear to collect a high-quality specimen. Instead, it collects the virus within the mid-nose area, which is why most patients can self-test.

There are many benefits to self-testing, including reducing the risk to doctors, nurses, and other clinical staff from potential exposure to a deadly virus. Self-testing is simple, so it’s possible to increase the number of people getting tested, which is particularly helpful during outbreaks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the McMaster Nasal Mid-Turbinate Flocked Swab for “supervised” self-collection for COVID-19 in March 2020.

  1. Comparison of Flocked and Rayon Swabs for Collection of Respiratory Epithelial Cells from Uninfected Volunteers and Symptomatic Patients. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, June 2006.
  2. Development and Evaluation of a Flocked Nasal Midturbinate Swab for Self-Collection in Respiratory Virus Infection Diagnostic Testing. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, September 2010.