Faster test for the coronavirus being developed at Cambridge University

PUBLISHED: 15:30 18 April 2020

A new test for the coronavirus is being used to screen staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

The tests so far have been slow because of the safety requirements necessary at each stage of handing the potentially lethal virus.

But a team at Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID) has been able to innactivate it.

The team says this means the turnaround time from swab to result is dramatically improved.

The team, led by Professor Stephen Baker, says they are able to diagnose infection in four hours, much faster than the current tests, which take over 24 hours to return a result.

They are using the test on NHS healthcare workers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, and on staff who have been asked to isolate due to potential contact with infected individuals but who may or may not be themselves infected.

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test allows scientists to extract a miniscule amount of genetic material from the virus and copy it millions of times, creating an amount large enough to confirm presence of the virus.

Until now, because of the infectious nature of the virus, samples have had to be processed in level 3 facilities. Because these facilities are not highly available this slows down the testing process because of the safety requirements.

The team led by Professor Stephen Baker has found a way of inactivating the virus at the point of sampling, enabling them to carry out their work rapidly in level 2 facilities, which are more widely available and have less restrictions on their use.

Professor Baker said: “Now that we are able to inactivate it, we can dramatically improve the turnaround time from swab to result. This will be extremely useful in helping test NHS frontline staff and helping clarify whether self-isolating healthcare staff are infected or negative, potentially allowing them to return to work.”

Samples are taken using nasal swabs. Once the virus has been inactivated, the samples are sent to the lab and tested. The whole process takes just four hours.

Professor Baker says that the team has enough reagents – the chemical substances used to detect the virus – to allow them to test 200 samples a day, five days a week, for the next 10-12 weeks. He hopes to be able to expand this capacity in the future.

Cambridge University has announced a partnership with AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline to set up a new testing laboratory at the university’s Anne McLaren Building. This facility will be used for high throughput screening for COVID-19 testing and to explore the use of alternative chemical reagents for test kits in order to help overcome current supply shortages.

Last week, it announced that a spinout company had developed a point-of-care, rapid diagnostic test for patients that was capable of diagnosing COVID-19 in 90 minutes. This test is also being evaluated at CITIID.


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