Skip to content

Are saliva COVID-19 tests the future?

By Sidney Madden | @sidney_madden_


We know the business of COVID-19 testing has been lucrative, and the University of Illinois System’s saliva-based tests are no exception. 

The state’s flagship university pulled in $64 million last year for its Shield tests, according to Chicago magazine.

Lauded for its innovative test-and-trace system, the university developed a nonprofit unit and a for-profit company to distribute its Shield tests.

Shield Illinois (Nonprofit)Shield T3 (For profit)
Universities, nongovernmental orgs = $25/testBusinesses = $30–35/test

What’s the test? A PCR test where you spit into a vial. Since it skips traditional RNA extraction, test results can be turned around in less than 24 hours. The average is currently 13 hours, Shield Illinois spokesperson Beth Heller told Scientific American

How is it different? In addition to producing quicker results and being less invasive, researchers have found saliva-based PCR tests are more sensitive than nasal swab counterparts. (With omicron, this could be given how the variant replicates more in the mouth and throat than past variants.) 

Could Shield tests be the future? It seems like it. 

  • State health officials cited the “extensive number of Shield saliva testing sites” as an option Illinoisans could turn to as 10 testing sites close today
  • Shield’s self-collection kits could soon be distributed via vending machines or at workplaces.
  • The U of I scientists are also starting to use the technology to create more sophisticated tests to detect other respiratory problems. 

Still, U of I System President Tim Killeen said he isn’t opposed to selling the whole operation to a commercial lab company. Like we said, the COVID-19 testing biz is lucrative.

A white woman in an orange shirt, blue mask, and green medical gloves collects a vial of saliva in a bag.
A COVID-19 saliva sample collected at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign July 7, 2020. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Getty)

In other COVID news

💉 Adults 50+ are eligible for another booster

📈 The new BA.2 omicron subvariant makes up most COVID-19 cases in the Midwest, the CDC said. Cases in Chicago are up 34% from last week.


Chicago, are you worried about our democracy in America? If you read the City Cast newsletter, then you’re most likely a very engaged citizen. Democracy is in danger and needs your help now more than ever. 

That’s why The Democracy Group has created a community and network of 16 podcasts united around the goal of helping listeners understand what’s broken in our democracy, and how people are working together to fix it.

Subscribe to their newsletter for podcast recommendations, deep dives, and information about how to become an engaged citizen in saving our democracy.


▪️ Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the Columbus statue would return to Grant Park — eventually. This comes almost two years after the city removed the statue following police clashes with protesters demanding its removal. Now, one of the officers could be fired. [City Cast; South Side Weekly, Chicago Reader]

▪️ Deborah Witzburg, former deputy inspector general, has been tapped to lead the city’s top watchdog agency. Inspector General Joe Ferguson retired in the fall. [WTTW]

▪️ Chicago could host the Democratic National Convention in 2024. The city last hosted at the United Center almost 30 years ago when former President Bill Clinton was seeking re-election. [WBEZ]

▪️ Go down the Studs Terkel Radio Archive rabbit hole. The renowned oral historian acquired quite a bit of tape during his 45-year career. [Belt Magazine]

▪️ You could win a $100 gift card if you take this survey! (Just saying.)

▪️ Farmers markets are back! Green City Market in Lincoln Park and Maxwell Street Market on the Near West Side return this weekend 🥳

A grand mural on a side of a building depicts a girl opening a book with swirling pages of 10 different Chicago suffragists.
“On the Wings of Change.” (Carrie Shepherd/City Cast)

Take a stroll to the South Loop to see “On the Wings of Change,” a mural celebrating Chi suffragists. 

The work depicts a 14-year-old girl reading a book and swirling pages of historical figures like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams. 

Even though a neighboring parking lot owner stopped an accompanying mural of Vice President Kamala Harris and the words “I’m Speaking,” you’ll still be blown away by the size and grandeur of this 86-foot-tall mural in the Wabash Arts Corridor.


City Cast isn’t just in Chicago — we’re in Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake, and now Vegas. 

But we’re not stopping there. Soon, we’ll be in a heckuva lot more places from Austin to Atlanta. From Boise to Boston. 

We’re hiring — a lot! Here’s a taste of just some of the open positions: 

🎰 Part-time host in Vegas
🥔 Newsletter writer in Boise
🧀 Lead producer in Madison
🎧 Audio producers in Boise, DC, and Denver

Tell friends and fam to check out those jobs and more on our website!

Subscribe to our newsletter! Fresh in your inbox every weekday at 6 a.m.