Speedy new virus test avoids painful swabs

April 10, 2020

By Anna Lynn Sptizer and Lori Brandt

Widespread, accurate testing for COVID-19 infection is critical for informing people’s behavior, delivering appropriate care and tracking the virus’s spread. Currently, testing involves collecting a sample from the nose and/or throat with a special swab at a designated collection location. This process is painful, slow and requires a health care professional. Samples are sent to a clinical lab and patients wait, from several hours to a week, for results from a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) assay. The sample collection method requires close contact between health care workers and patients, posing risk of transmission, and with limited swabs and PPE equipment, can be logistically challenging. 

Over the last few weeks, much simpler paper-strip assays, which target a patient’s immune response to immediate or prolonged exposure to the coronavirus, have begun to emerge. These tests require a blood sample collection, need further sample preparation and treatment, and are designed to be performed in clinical settings. Moreover, the accuracy of these tests has been called into question lately. 

An engineering-led team of UCI researchers is developing a rapid, direct test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, as opposed to the infection caused by the virus. Such a rapid immuno-assay could be widely distributed to medical personnel, clinics, hospitals and the public. The team is designing a simple, lateral flow assay (based on a paper strip), similar to a home pregnancy test, that could be sent to people’s homes for self-screening of the general population. Medical workers could be among the first targeted recipients of such a test to determine whether they are uninfected when leaving the hospital. 

Julia Zakashansky, materials science and engineering doctoral student, spearheads the CoronaStrip effort in the Khine lab, coordinating a team of students participating both in-person and remotely: from Orange County to Seattle to Sao Paolo, Brazil. “Our lateral flow assay is extremely simple and will provide a color-change result if the virus is detected in saliva samples,” explains Zakashansky.

“Saliva has been shown to have a better than 90% correlation with nasopharyngeal specimens in detecting respiratory viruses, including coronaviruses,” said Michelle Khine, professor of biomedical engineering and project PI. 

Most importantly, these test strips will be matched to a cell phone app that automatically images and uploads the results for anonymous tracking of the location (randomized over a 1-mile radius to ensure HIPAA protection), generating heat maps of infection zones and allowing for real-time epidemiological surveillance. 

If the test is positive, the individual would be instructed on follow-up testing and medical attention. This would free up critical health care personnel by providing an at-home prescreen as well as a quick diagnostic for health care providers themselves, who must know if they are infected. 

The “CoronaStrip” will be tested in the UCI Department of Emergency Medicine. In addition to Khine, Professor Elliot Botvinick, biomedical engineering, and Chancellor’s Professor Plamen Atanasso, chemical and biomolecular engineering, are collaborating with colleagues from emergency medicine, including Associate Professor Sean Young and Professor Shahram Lotfipour, M.D.