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Robots, lasers and spit: researchers develop innovate methods to test for Covid-19

Image credit: Dreamstime

As governments scramble to scale up testing for Covid-19 in order to help prevent its spread, researchers have found unusual ways to determine whether a patient is infected with the virus.

Firstly, a team from the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) has created a robotic testing platform developed in just nine days that is expected to boost UK testing capacity.

The platform is usually used to test for infections in vulnerable people such as those living with dementia.

Currently, around 10,000 tests for coronavirus are being done each day in the UK, with the Government aiming to increase this to 100,000 per day by the end of April.

Each of the robotic modules developed has the capability to process almost 1,000 coronavirus samples in a 12-hour period.

The system employs the same test being used by the NHS, but is able to process many more samples at once and, unlike other systems, can use a range of different reagents.

It is currently being accredited and approved, and last week began testing samples at two NHS hospitals in London, which have one robotic module each.

After completing validation on 251 real-life samples in blind testing, the platform began testing patient samples yesterday and is now ready to be rolled out on a much larger scale, UK DRI said.

Professor Paul Freemont, group leader at the UK DRI’s care research and technology centre at Imperial College London and University of Surrey, said: “This whole project was about mobilising people, equipment and expertise to contribute to efforts to combat the virus.

“I am fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing team and it’s astonishing what they have been able to achieve in less than two weeks.

“Importantly, we were talking to NHS professionals on the front line from the very start. We began by asking them how we could help and were led by them throughout the whole process.”

A separate team of European photonics scientists are developing an ultrasensitive laser sensor that can detect coronavirus from a simple saliva or nasal swab in minutes.

The non-invasive optical biosensor is capable of finding Covid-19 in humans as soon as it is present in the body, meaning even those on day 1 of the infection could be told to self-isolate in order to prevent further spread.

Originally developed to look for bacterial infections or cancer biomarkers, the detector is able to examine virus antigens using miniaturised chips – or 'nanophotonic biosensors'.

While the researchers have already created six working laboratory demonstrators for other applications, they say technology still needs further adaptation and testing but could be available in a year at the latest.

Calling themselves CONVAT and co-ordinated at ICN2 – the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Spain – the researchers have tested the demonstrators on patients’ samples provided by hospitals in Spain.

Project co-ordinator, Professor Laura Lechuga said: “With thousands of deaths worldwide, we are in urgent need of a rapid new testing kit that is accurate, highly sensitive, non-invasive and cheap to produce.

“We are currently integrating all the instrumentation in a portable 25x15x25 cm box with a tablet control.

“At present, our detector is user-friendly, with the preparation being only technical expertise required, and could be widely deployed for GPs or nurses to test patients.

“Our nanosensor is capable of detecting RNA strands which will fully identify the new coronavirus.”

Earlier this week scientists called for more research into whether current water treatment methods are enough to kill Covid-19 due to fears that the virus could be spread through water infrastructure.

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