Coronavirus Testing Getting Easier and Faster!


Academia and private industry have moved to fill the testing void with Pop-Up coronavirus labs and a 5-minute test, writes Vanessa Bates Ramirez for an article published in SingularityHub.

Here’s an excerpt from that.

Not enough tests?

Two and a half months after the first confirmed novel coronavirus case in the US, the virus has invaded the country’s east and west coasts. Now it is quickly making its way into the center of the country.

Though the number of cases increased and hospitals braced themselves for surges, not enough tests were available and there remains a massive and debilitating shortage of the same.

Strategy used by other countries

Countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore used widespread testing as key in combating the virus.

She said decisions were made in an information vacuum rather than on thorough analytics because of lack of information on

who was sick and who wasn’t, or
where the infection clusters were located.

Light of hope

Now there’s hope that this scenario could soon change. Academia and private industry have moved to fill the testing void. They announced two particularly encouraging developments Pop-Up Labs and Abbott Labs’ 5-Minute Test.

Pop-Up Labs

The “founder” of gene editing technique CRISPR Jennifer Doudna, is now leading a pop-up testing lab at UC Berkeley. Pulling together over 100 scientists and volunteers from Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute and nearby institutions they are gearing up.

To test patient samples, labs and scientists need to meet federal requirements under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program.

Thanks to an acceleration of the certification process by the FDA, the lab should be fully certified by next week, and can start testing patient samples at that time.

Working procedure of the team

The team will use a polymerase chain reaction test run on machines that can analyze over 300 samples at a time.
They plan to process 1,000 tests per day to start, eventually going up to 3,000 per day.
Estimated time from receiving patient samples to having a definitive diagnostic is a mere four hours, aided by robotic sample handling and automated test-running.

Where is the current need?

Given that California currently has the country’s biggest testing backlog, Doudna and her team have their work cut out for them.

Similar labs have popped up at Harvard/MIT, the Mayo Clinic, University of Iowa, University of Washington, Ohio State University, and other locations around the country.

Abbott Labs’ 5-Minute Test

Quick analysis

Illinois-based Abbott Labs’ ID NOW platform is a toaster-sized machine that quickly analyzes patient samples to detect illnesses. It is already used in urgent care clinics and emergency rooms across the country.

Cleared to test for COVID-19

Normally used to detect conditions like strep throat or the flu, the system was cleared to test for Covid-19 by the FDA last week. A week prior, the company also launched Covid-19 testing on a platform that’s used in hospitals and labs.

Target of 50,000 per day

Abbott has a test delivery target of 50,000 per day.

Fast results

Positive results showing up within 5 minutes and negative results within 13 minutes, compared to the 7-day turnaround time of the initial test produced by the CDC.

Between its two platforms, Abbott plans to produce a total of five million tests in April.

Something better than nothing

Though this is not enough to effectively fight this virus and get society up and running again as soon as possible, Berkeley’s, Abbott’s, and all the other tests springing up from research centers and private companies are something which is better than the gaping void of nothing.

Virus Detection 101

How do these tests work?

The tests are looking for viral genetic material, and if it’s present, they use chemicals to multiply it and make it detectable in a fail-safe way.

Picture the coronavirus as a pincushion full of needles.

Chemicals called reagents are added to a patient sample, and these reagents get past the needles and cause the pincushion to crack open, releasing the virus’s RNA.
Adding an enzyme to the RNA causes it to convert to DNA, which is then replicated using additional reagents, enzymes, and temperature changes in a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
Two DNA strands become four, which then become eight, and the cycle continues until there are around 100 billion copies of the viral DNA.
Each time a strand is copied, a fluorescent probe appears; a sample glowing with fluorescence, then, is unmistakably full of viral DNA—and that means a positive test result (and immediate isolation of the person who was just tested!).

Hurdles to Clear

Test shortages

Despite this commendable work by scientists and a necessary loosening of government regulations, it’s unfortunately likely that testing shortages will continue.

So many people needed to be tested so quickly, and demand for items like reagents and swabs is far outpacing the supply chain’s ability to deliver.

Cannot detect mild or asymptomatic cases

These tests can only detect Covid-19 in people who have the virus at the time of testing. To identify people who have mild or asymptomatic cases of the virus, a different test (called an antibody test) is needed —these people could be immune without even knowing it.

Baby steps towards solution

There’s no easy answer to this virus, a fact we’ve become painfully aware of over the past few weeks. But if all we can do is take baby steps towards a solution, it should comfort us to know that the best scientific minds among us are doing just that.

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