Research company Imec has started developing a groundbreaking SARS-CoV-2 test. The new test will identify virus particles in a person’s exhaled breath. The solution promises the accurate identification of a contagious case in less than five minutes.
This year, it has become abundantly clear that viruses are capable of striking hard and turning people’s lives upside down. In order to minimize the effects of epidemics and pandemics on our health, society and the economy, governments and experts need to be able to swiftly and accurately assess how a virus is spreading. Today’s SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic tools however come with quite a few limitations.
The most sensitive and reliable tool today is the PCR test – polymerase chain reaction. The test detects the virus’s genetic material in a nasopharyngeal specimen. The downside of the PCR test is that trained medical personnel must collect the swab, and the process is described by many as highly uncomfortable. Moreover, the test comes with a processing time (in a clinical lab) of about two days.
Another alternative, the rapid antigen test, is less reliable due to its complexity. Lastly, the serological test (which uses a blood sample) is faster and less expensive than a PCR test but only detects whether someone has developed antibodies after the person has been in contact with the virus.
Since the outbreak it has become clear that the virus is transmitted pre-symptomatically via exhaled particles. Therefore a possibile solution to quickly determine whether someone is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be through a breath sample, coupled with an ultrafast molecular analysis. This form of testing would be less invasive compared to swabs or saliva, and allow for more frequent testing and a faster return to normal.
Imec, a research and innovation hub in nanoelectronics and digital technologies, has started developing a ‘breath analysis’ test that indicates whether someone is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether they have a high probability of being contagious. The test should provide results in less than five minutes.
The new ‘breath analyzer’ will make testing for SARS-CoV-2 easier, faster, more comfortable and possible on a much larger scale. Moreover the test will be designed to flexibly cope with the rise of other viruses and germs that spread via exhaled particles – such as influenza, RSV, and tuberculosis.
Imec’s solution consists of a sample collector and an analysis unit, both of which are being custom developed by imec researchers. Researchers are focusing much of their attention on the sample collector, which will act as the aerosol (and virus particle) collector and support the solution’s high-speed real-time quantitative (RT-q)PCR functionality.
The research company has developped a chip that allows to capture the viral particles, while its powerful RT-qPCR functionality brings down the duration of the PCR effort from 50 to 5 minutes. The standard silicon technology used to build this chip facilitates mass production at a low cost.
Following the development of the underlying technology, experts from the UZ Leuven University Hospital will team up with imec to engage in an extensive clinical study. By the summer of 2021, researchers plan to test a functional prototype at Brussels Airport to ensure that the final solution meets all requirements needed to enable people to travel and meet up again safely and comfortably.