Widespread diagnostic testing is needed to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and manage the pandemic. Effective mass screening requires robust and sensitive tests that reliably detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infections with a low viral count. Currently, the most accurate tests are based on detection of viral RNA by RT-PCR. We developed a method to process COVID-19 specimens that simplifies and increases the sensitivity of viral RNA detection by direct RT-qPCR, performed without RNA purification. In the method, termed Alkaline-Glycol Processing (AG Processing), a SARS-CoV-2-containing biological specimen, such as saliva or a swab-collected suspension, is processed at pH 12.2 to 12.8 for 5 min at room temperature. An aliquot of the AG-processed specimen is used for detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA by direct RT-qPCR. AG processing effectively lyses viruses and reduces the effect of inhibitors of RT-PCR that are present in biological specimens. The sensitivity of detecting viral RNA using AG processing is on par with methods that include a viral RNA purification step. One copy of SARS-CoV-2 virus per reaction, equivalent to 300 copies per ml of saliva, is detectable in the AG-processed saliva. The LOD is 300 viral copies per ml of initial saliva specimen. AG processing works with saliva specimens or swab specimens collected into Universal Transport Medium, is compatible with heat treatment of saliva, and was confirmed to work with a range of CDC-approved RT-qPCR products and kits. Detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA using AG processing with direct RT-qPCR provides a reliable and scalable diagnostic test for COVID-19 that can be integrated into a range of workflows, including automated settings.