A new portable test that detects coronavirus infection within a four-minute window has been developed by scientists in Shanghai.
The test is reportedly as accurate as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Using an electromechanical biosensor that analyzes genetic material from swabs, the molecular electromechanical system, or MolEMS, is seen as a promising alternative to the highly sensitive and highly specific PCR test.
Researchers from Fudan University took nasopharyngeal swab samples from 33 people infected with the coronavirus to test the technology. They also collected samples from 54 people who were not infected with coronavirus, although some of them had influenza or fever.
After conducting three parallel experiments, they found that results returned by MolEMS were in “perfect” agreement with the PCR test results. SARS-CoV-2, one of the strains that causes COVID-19, was detected in all 33 positive cases and not once in the 54 negative cases.
The team’s findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. Aside from COVID-19, they suggested that MolEMS can also be developed to test for other infections.
“We implemented an electromechanical biosensor for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 into an integrated and portable prototype device, and showed that it detected SARS-CoV-2 in less than four minutes,” the team explained. “Besides COVID-19, the development of MolEMS could allow for the ultraprecise diagnosis of other diseases in a few minutes, without the need for target purification, amplification or culture, which normally requires hours or days.”
Results for a PCR test can take up to several days to receive, but this type of test is currently the most accurate in the market. Unlike the much quicker antigen tests – which seek virus-infected proteins – PCR tests detect RNA and nucleic acids, among other genetic material.
While the Fudan University study has delivered promising results, it used a relatively small sample. Andrew Ching, an economics professor at both the Johns Hopkins Department of Economics and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, told DW that the test “could be a game changer” if its results “were to hold up in a larger test sample.”
China, where COVID-19 was first detected, is currently one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of coronavirus test kits. Customs data show that the country exported $1.6 billion worth of such kits last December, CBS News reported.