Coronavirus tests are in development across the globe, and the latest comes from photonics scientists in Spain who are developing an ultra-sensitive laser sensor that detects COVID-19, via either a nasal or saliva swab, at the earliest point of infection.
The group of scientists, called CONVAT, and who are coordinated at ICN2 (opens in new tab), the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Spain, are developing a rapid and non-invasive ‘optical biosensor’ demonstrator that uses photonics (technology that manipulates light) to detect very early COVID-19 infection. This could help tackle the coronavirus pandemic on a much more aggressive level.
The new ultrasensitive detector has the ability to diagnose in real-time, with high specificity from a low concentration sample, making it more reliable than the 'finger-prick' test currently used to determine if someone has had coronavirus and has now recovered.
The detector has been used on patients’ samples provided by Vall D´Hebrón Hospital in Barcelona, plus several other hospitals in Spain. Project coordinator Professor Laura Lechuga said: “Our nanosensor is capable of detecting RNA strands which will fully identify the new coronavirus.” The detector works by looking at the 'binding' of the coronavirus molecules to the sensor surface, producing a new signal when the virus is present.
“With thousands of deaths worldwide, we are in urgent need of a rapid new testing kit that is accurate, highly sensitive, non-invasive and cheap to produce.” Professor Lechuga went on to add: “At present, our detector is user-friendly, with the preparation being [the] only technical expertise required, and could be widely deployed for GPs or nurses to test patients.”
While it is not known exactly how the novel coronavirus is spreading, health organizations widely agree (opens in new tab) that the outbreak may be spread via cough and sneeze droplets. “Our nanophotonic POC biosensor can examine respiratory body fluids for rapid diagnostics and screening,” says Professor Lechuga.
COVID-19 tests in use right now
Countries around the world are using a variety of coronavirus tests including throat and nasal swabs, and finger prick tests. If you live in a country that has developed an antibody test you may be asked to supply a blood sample, as is currently the case in China, which would then be mined for antibodies specific to COVID-19.
Throat and nasal swab samples, popular in the US and UK, are best suited to polymerase chain reaction testing (PCR). The CDC-developed COVID-19 tests (opens in new tab) are PCR tests that work by detecting specific genetic material within the virus. Test results are usually available within a few hours, which is longer compared to the photonics-based saliva test in development by CONVAT.
The FDA has approved a new rapid COVID-19 test by Abbott Labs (opens in new tab) that can deliver positive results in as little as five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes. As of March 30, there were over 230 COVID-19 test developers requesting emergency FDA authorization (opens in new tab) for their tests, and at least 20 have been granted. Having such a large number of diagnostic tests available for one virus in such a short space of time is something we’ve never seen before.
Number of people tested for coronavirus
According to Our World in Data (opens in new tab), over 1.92million tests for COVID-19 have been carried out in America up to Monday April 6. In the UK, as of Tuesday 7 April, 208,837 people were tested, compared to 721,732 in Italy, which is projected to be about three weeks ahead of the UK in terms of virus outbreak and subsequent testing.
On March 18, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (opens in new tab) in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The act provides funding for free coronavirus testing, 14-day paid leave for American workers affected by the pandemic, and increased funding for food stamps. The act states that employer-sponsored group health plans, Medicare (opens in new tab), Medicaid, CHIP, Tricare and others are required to provide coverage for COVID-19 testing to all enrolled and covered by the health plan, with no copay.
Treatment costs are not covered, so if you don’t currently have insurance, we’d recommend looking at the best health insurance (opens in new tab) companies, plus the best Medicare Part D plans (opens in new tab) for any prescription drug costs.
Last month the UK government announced that Britons would be able to conduct coronavirus antibody tests at home with finger-prick kits available to buy from Amazon and Boots. However, the validity of these tests are now being questioned by a leading Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. On April 5, Professor John Bell wrote in a blog post (opens in new tab) that multiple tests provided for evaluation “have not performed well”, and that “this is not a good result for test suppliers or for us.”