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Rapid COVID-19 Testing Could be Coming to Smartphones

— September 22, 2020

Researchers are developing a phone-based test that quickly detects COVID-19.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have designed a portable coronavirus test that can provide results on a smartphone in less than 40 minutes.  The hope is for the rapid test to alleviate some of the burden currently being placed on lab testing facilities.

The real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test is the best way to test for SARS-CoV-2 infection, which enables RNA to go through reverse transcription, converting it to double-stranded DNA.  Scientists then copy specific pieces of the genome, using the PCR process.  By inserting a fluorescent dye, the scientists can determine the sample is positive for COVID-19 if signal marks appear.  The procedure requires lab equipment, however, and testing is administered in cycles, leading to an increase in wait times, particularly for regions that have limited infrastructure in place.

Rapid COVID-19 Testing Could be Coming to Smartphones
Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

The current study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The team explained that their rapid test “can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in less than 40 minutes by using a hand-held reader, 3D-manufactured cartridge, and a smartphone.”  The researchers constructed a prototype from commercially available components that included a 3D printed cartridge and a smartphone-based optical reader.  They then tested twenty nose swabs, ten of which were positive for SARs CoV-2.  They put these samples “in a viral transport media solution, which stirred the viruses gently.”  Immersed in the solution, the team incubated a portion of the sample at 95ºC for 1 minute, loaded “it in 1 milliliter (ml) and 5 ml syringes and injected the components into the 3D-printed microfluidic cartridge.”  Finally, the cartridge was placed inside the portable phone cradle with a heating chamber which returns results within 30 to 40 minutes, emitting a fluorescent light if the test comes back positive.

In their paper, the authors proposed the rapid coronavirus test “is designed for accessibility and the potential for scale-up…This approach could enable the scalable deployment of COVID-19 diagnostics without laboratory-grade infrastructure and resources, especially in settings where a diagnosis is required at the point of collection, such as schools, facilities that care for the elderly or disabled, or sporting events.”  The researchers are now working with Fast Radius Inc., a Chicago-based company, to develop microfluidic cartridges.

Lead researcher and electrical and computer engineering professor, Brian Cunningham, said, “This test can be performed rapidly on passengers before getting on a flight, on people going to a theme park or before events like a conference or concert.  Cloud computing via a smartphone application could allow a negative test result to be registered with event organizers or as part of a boarding pass for a flight.  Or a person in quarantine could give themselves daily tests, register the results with a doctor, and then know when it’s safe to come out and rejoin society.”

The technology and its ease of use would be beneficial for churches, schools, restaurants, and other public gathering places that recently reopened.  The test can be taken by each participant before entering and after exiting with the results available almost immediately and more accurately than tracking symptoms alone.


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