The University of Southampton

Scientists accelerate development of 15-minute COVID-19 diagnostics tests

Published: 1 June 2020
Images showing the laboratory testing of the prototype COVID-19 tests

Researchers at the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics (ZIPN) have reported promising early results from a prototype for rapid and cheap COVID-19 diagnostic tests.

The laser-printed testing kits, which detect the presence of the virus itself rather than antibodies, have been designed to return a diagnosis within 15 minutes.

It is hoped the kits could become a inexpensive alternative to laboratory-based RT-PCR tests that are struggling to keep up with global demand and impractical for many less-developed countries.

The ZIPN team and partners in the University's Faculty of Medicine have now been awarded seed funding from the Rosetrees Trust and the John Black Charitable Foundation to accelerate its development.

Dr Collin Sones, ZIPN project lead, said: "Currently it can take the health services a long time to confirm a diagnosis of COVID-19. Patients with symptoms either need to visit specialist testing centres, take and send their own samples to a lab, or go into hospital where samples are then taken to laboratories for RT-PCR testing.

"Our research team believes that a rapid viral detection test would alleviate the difficulties associated with the ongoing testing situation and identify potentially infected people who would need to either self-isolate or go to hospital."

ZIPN researchers have previously demonstrated paper-based infection tests, similar to the commonly available pregnancy test, that present an affordable pathway to diagnose different disease-related biomarkers within 10 to 15 minutes.

The research teams have tested a small number of swab samples taken from COVID-19 patients and shown that the prototype test can detect the virus in patients with high viral loads.

Further extensive work is now underway to increase the sensitivity of the test and its usefulness to identify patients early on in their infection, possibly even when they are not showing any symptoms of the disease. If successful, the test would be cheap to manufacture on a large scale and therefore readily affordable and available.

Dr Chris McCormick, who leads the Faculty of Medicine's team of microbiologists and clinicians, says: "Rapid and cheap diagnostic tests are urgently needed to detect the virus. A highly sensitive viral detection assay would allow repeated mass testing of essential workers and then the general public. Moreover, these sort of tests are well suited for use in less-developed countries around the world who do not have easy access to the sort of equipment or resources to do routine RT-PCR."

Researchers have developed and optimised the new tests during the lockdown at the University of Southampton, working in adjacent labs to maintain social distancing and lone working regulations.

The ZIPN team are actively pursuing investment opportunities that can help with the large-scale commercialisation of the test to help meet the global demand.

The team are grateful for the support from ESPRC, Global-NAMRIP (the Global Network for Anti-Microbial Resistance and Infection Prevention) and NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre in the development of their point of care diagnostic testing.

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