Oxford scientists develop COVID-19 test that delivers results in less than five minutes


Scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Physics have developed an extremely rapid diagnostic test that detects and identifies viruses in less than five minutes. 

The researchers hoped that the test could eventually be used at airports, music venues, gyms, and businesses to quickly establish COVID-19 free spaces. The University plans to start product development in early 2021, with an approved device available within six months. It is currently working to set up a spinout company, seeking investment to accelerate the test into a fully integrated device.

The Oxford test is able to identify SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, with “high accuracy,” the researchers said in a pre-print study that is yet to be peer-reviewed. It can also differentiate the virus from other infections such as flu and seasonal human Coronaviruses, the study added. The method involves taking throat swabs, which are then scanned for virus particles. Machine-learning software “quickly and automatically” identifies the virus present in the sample – exploiting the fact different viruses have distinct surface chemistry, sizes, and shape. While other diagnostic tests for COVID-19, known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, look for genetic material from the virus, the antigen test looks for molecules on the surface of the virus. PCR tests require expensive and specialized equipment and can take hours or days to get results, while antigen tests are quick but tend to have less accuracy, which might cause confusion of real results in some cases.

Professor Achillefs Kapanidis, from Oxford’s Department of Physics, said, “Our method quickly detects intact virus particles; meaning the assay is simple, extremely rapid, cost-effective and accurate.” While the breakthrough may not be developed into a fully functional mass testing device until the latter part of 2021, it could help countries and economies combat the pandemic next winter. Dr. Nicole Robb, assistant professor at Warwick Medical School and a co-lead on the research, said: “A significant concern for the upcoming winter months is the unpredictable effects of co-circulation if SARS-CoV-2 with other seasonal respiratory viruses; we have shown that our assay can reliably distinguish between different viruses in clinical samples, a development that offers a crucial advantage in the next phase of the pandemic.” 



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