UK biotech Oxford Nanopore has launched a portable test that can detect both Covid-19 and seasonal flu viruses in saliva or swabs in a little over an hour.
The quick output of Oxford Nanopore’s test, called LamPORE, is expected to be a huge improvement on existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, considered the gold standard in confirming Covid-19 cases, which typically take about a day to produce results and only look for a single pathogen.
It is one of the most advanced of several upcoming types of tests currently under development, which could speed up testing and help to contain a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 people and sickened at least 18 million around the globe.
“The UK’s ability to manage the Covid-19 pandemic has been severely hampered by inadequate logistics and a failure to secure and deploy reliable tests in sufficient numbers at speed,” Billy Palmer, a senior fellow at the UK health think tank Nuffield Trust, told me. “The advent of new, faster tests could help considerably, provided that we are able to get accurate tests to where they are most needed.”
Standard PCR tests work by heating up genetic material from a swab sample to varying temperatures to amplify fragments and look for the viral genetic code. The technique takes several hours to return results, as well as requiring bulky lab machinery and highly trained staff.
Nanopore’s newly launched test, in contrast, is based on a type of DNA amplification technology called LAMP. This requires just one incubation temperature instead of several, which makes the detection faster than PCR and requires simpler machinery. Any amplified viral DNA present is then sequenced to detect the target pathogens. The whole process can be done with a palm-sized device with a potential turnover of up to 2,000 samples per day.
About 450,000 of the company’s tests, which according to media reports have similar sensitivity to standard PCR tests, will be made available to labs and nursing homes in the UK starting next week, with millions more per month expected to follow soon. The device is hoped to make a big difference in UK nursing homes this winter because it would allow rapid in-house testing, reducing the time needed to respond to a flu or Covid-19 outbreak.
Just as importantly, Oxford Nanopore’s new assay does not rely on the same supply chain as standard PCR tests—thus it can help address a major limitation of governments’ ability to expand testing, which is that skyrocketing demand has put pressure on suppliers of reagents and other materials necessary for the tests.
New Covid-19 diagnostic technology such as LamPORE, while promising, will need to pass the test of time. Furthermore, it is unlikely to replace PCR diagnostics, but would likely be used in complement to the testing standard.
Nanopore isn’t the only player developing a Covid-19 test based on LAMP technology. For example, the South Korean company Seasun Biomaterials launched a Covid-19 detection kit based on the same principles in April, though it didn’t supply a portable detection device. The technology is also being trialed in an EU-funded project dedicated to developing Covid-19 diagnostics that can be used outside of the lab.
LAMP-based diagnostics is one of several new testing concepts that are being developed to detect pieces of the virus. Emerging forms of diagnostics technology involving lasers and gene editing tools are its less advanced competitors in that niche.
Also this week, a diagnostics project using graphene — a novel ultra-thin material made up of carbon atoms — has begun the development of a test that could identify people that recently had a Covid-19 infection within 15 minutes using just a drop of blood or saliva.
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