Coronavirus Outbreak: Singapore researchers are developing a COVID-19 test that can diagnose infection in 5 min

The method 'photocopies' the virus's genetic material millions of times, and does it at rates of millions of copies a minute.

tech2 News Staff March 26, 2020 11:45:56 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Singapore researchers are developing a COVID-19 test that can diagnose infection in 5 min

Researchers at the NanoBio Lab at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) in Singapore have developed a rapid test that can diagnose a coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2) infection in as little as five minutes. If and when the test seeks the necessary approvals, it would be the fastest test currently available for COVID-19 . The team is currently optimising the test for a diverse range of potential patients and hopes to submit the test for approval in a month's time.

The test is designed to seek out genetic material of the virus in secretions from a patient – most commonly saliva and secretions from the nose, both of which would have small amounts of the virus in an infected person. These samples are collected using a swab, and fed to a portable device that will return a result in 5 to 10 minutes. It uses an extremely rapid method to multiply the genetic material in the sample (exponentially), called Cepat.

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Professor Jackie Ying (in pink headgear), the head of A*Star's NanoBio Lab and her team of scientists have spent 6 weeks designing a rapid test for COVID-19 five minutes. Image: Jackie Yang

The researchers are hoping to meet the big challenge at hand when it comes to creating a useful diagnostic tool, Professor Jackie Ying told the Straits Times, which is to have a rapid and accurate diagnostic tool that doesn't need expensive machines to function.

Currently, the tests being used in many countries around the world use the same principle – of rapidly multiplying the genetic material in a sample and detecting specific coronavirus genes (small fragments of genetic material that perform important functions in the virus). If the genes pop up in the test, the results show as positive.

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Representational Image. Reuters

What sets the Singapore research team's COVID-19 test apart, is speed. Their method can "photocopy" the genetic material of the virus millions of times, and do it at rates of millions of copies per minute, unlike earlier tests. It also doesn't require the use of a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine – the expensive equipment used by research labs to run diagnostic tests. Instead, it uses an enzyme (a reactive protein) developed by Prof Ying's lab. Enzymes, by design, are specific and predictable in the way they work, and only require the sample to be kept at a fixed temperature for the 5-10 minute duration of the test.

It would be best if a fast test can pick up the infection from a patient at various stages of the disease, regardless of whether he has a high or low viral load, Prof Ying told the Times. Within the month, the team is eager to tell the world they've succeeded.

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