Coronavirus: New 90-minute Covid test gives ‘highly accurate’ results, say UK scientists

Researchers say rapid-result, lab-free devices could be used to test people in schools, offices and care homes

Adam Forrest
Friday 18 September 2020 01:00
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A new coronavirus test developed in the UK which produces “highly accurate” results in just 90 minutes has been hailed by scientists as a potential gamechanger in controlling the pandemic.

The high-speed tests, which do not require a laboratory and are performed using cartridges smaller than a mobile phone, were used on NHS staff and patients as part of a study led by scientists from Imperial College London.  

The “CovidNudge” rapid-testing device was shown to have a sensitivity above 94 per cent and specificity of 100 per cent – which means it produces very few false negatives and no false positives.

The so-called lab-in-a-cartridge device is now in use across eight London hospitals, and is due to be rolled out at a national level in the coming weeks. Boris Johnson’s government recently placed an order for 5.8 million of the devices.

“These results suggest the test, which can be performed at a patient’s bedside without the need to handle any sample material, has comparable accuracy to standard laboratory testing,” said Professor Graham Cooke, lead author of the study from the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London.

“Many tests involve a trade-off between speed and accuracy, but this test manages to achieve both. Developing an effective bedside test in under three months has been an incredible collaboration between teams of engineers, clinicians and virologists.”

To use one of the tests at a patient’s bedside, a nose swab from a patient is inserted into the device, which then looks for traces of genetic material belonging to the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19.

A result is available within 90 minutes, compared to results from conventional coronavirus testing done at laboratories, which can take at least 24 hours.

Professor Cooke suggested the new testing device would be particularly useful in hospitals, but could also play a role in testing people in some community settings such as schools, offices, care homes, and sports and cultural events.

New CovidNudge coronavirus test can process results in just 90 minutes

However, the technology still requires clinically trained people to use it and analyse results, and has not yet been refined for use at home.  

“We haven’t evaluated it in a home setting,” Prof Cooke told reporters at a media briefing. “It’s going to have an important role, particularly in healthcare settings. I think it could have a role in certain [other] areas, but it’s really not going to be the answer to very high numbers being tested every day.”

Playing down the idea the device was the answer to the prime minister’s “moonshot” call for mass, rapid testing, Prof Cooke added: “I think this is an important contribution to the overall picture.”

Last week Mr Johnson spoke at No 10 about his hopes British scientists could develop tests which could turn around results “in 90 or even 20 minutes” and be deployed on a mass scale – “literally millions of tests processed every single day”.

Prof Cooke said thousands of the devices produced by DnaNudge – an Imperial College London start-up unit based in west London – were being sent out to NHS hospitals in Oxford, Manchester and Birmingham for staff to use on patients.  

Professor Chris Toumazou, chief executive and co-founder of DnaNudge and founder of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial, said the device “offers very significant potential in terms of mass population testing during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The chief executive said: “The platform is well suited to testing in primary care and community settings with potential for use in non-healthcare settings such as care homes, schools, transport hubs, offices, and, to help bring the arts back, in theatres and venues.” 

Staff handle samples ready for the lab at testing centre in Southwark, south London

Prof Toumazou added: “However, further studies of real-world effectiveness in non-clinical settings would be required prior to widespread deployment.”

Dr Bob Klaber, director of strategy, research and innovation at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said the CovidNudge device would at least play a key role in getting in faster turnaround times for results within the health service.

“Getting accurate results back to clinicians and their patients as quickly as possible makes a huge difference,” he said. “We are very much looking forward to rolling this out more widely.”

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