Management of COVID-19 and other epidemics requires large-scale diagnostic testing. The gold standard for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection remains reverse transcription quantitative PCR (qRT-PCR) analysis, which detects viral RNA more sensitively than any other method. However, the resource use and supply-chain requirements of RT-PCR have continued to challenge diagnostic laboratories worldwide. Here, we establish and characterize a low-cost method to detect SARS-CoV-2 in clinical combined nose and throat swabs, allowing for automation in high-throughput settings. This method inactivates virus material with sodium dodecylsulfate (SDS) and uses silicon dioxide as the RNA-binding matrix in combination with sodium chloride (NaCl) and isopropanol. With similar sensitivity for SARS-CoV-2 viral targets but a fraction of time and reagent expenditure compared with commercial kits, our method also enables sample pooling without loss of sensitivity. We suggest that this method will facilitate more economical widespread testing, particularly in resource-limited settings.