Imec is developing a rapid test to identify & measure COVID-19 contagiousness in less than 5 minutes


03 november 2020
Auteur(s): Mihir Gupta
Imec initiates development of a rapid coronavirus test to identify and measure COVID-19 contagiousness in less than 5 minutes

By Mihir Gupta

Science Section Editor

Imec, a research & development center for nanoelectronics and digital technologies, recently announced that it is developing a novel rapid SARS-CoV-2 detection test that not only identifies people who are COVID-19 positive but also measures to what extent the patient is contagious. All of this in less than 5 minutes. This development is being done in collaboration with UZ Leuven. 

Currently, there are 3 types of tests  being done for COVID-19 diagnosis. The most commonly used test, i.e. a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, detects the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the sample taken from the nasal and oral regions of the patient. This test is the most sensitive one, however it needs trained medical staff to collect the nasal swab samples and to execute the test. Moreover, it can take up to 2 days to get the results back. The second type of test called rapid antigen test, detects specific proteins (antigens) that are present on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 virus, but is less sensitive than a PCR test. Another type of test called antibody test (or serological test) does not detect the virus itself but the antibodies produced in our bodies in response to infection from the virus. This type of test is not efficient at an early stage of infection as antibody development within the body takes time.

The new rapid test being developed at imec uses PCR methodology but makes use of ‘ultra-fast on-chip PCR’ and is therefore significantly faster than a traditional PCR test. A typical on-chip PCR test performs the same biochemical amplification of the genetic material (DNA or RNA) as a traditional PCR test, but is extremely miniaturized thanks to the silicon-based microfludic technology. This way the on-chip PCR offers significant advantages such as reduced sample requirement, faster processing time, easier integration of pre- or post-PCR processing steps, etc. 

The complete SARS-CoV-2 detection test kit, being developed at imec, consists of an aerosol collector unit and an analysis unit. The patient will have to blow in air into the aerosol collector unit (a disposable cartridge). The collected sample will then be transferred for extraction of the virus' genetic material followed by on-chip PCR test. Since the sample collection will be done by simply blowing air into the collector, the reliance of trained medical personnel will be significantly reduced. Additionally, as the PCR chip is manufactured based on standard silicon technology (similar to computer chip manufacturing technology), these tests can be mass produced and distributed widely at lower cost.

As the patient can already be contagious before the symptoms start to appear or even some infected patients may be non-symptomatic, this type of rapid PCR testing will be extremely beneficial. This test is expected to not only identify a COVID-19 positive patient but also measure the degree of contagiousness of the specific person. This is because the sample collection is done by blowing air into the collector, which is a critical spreading mode of the virus i.e. when a patient talks, laughs or coughs. 

Currently, the main research focus is on the sample collector and the first clinical studies are expected to run through November 2020 in collaboration with UZ Leuven. By the summer of 2021, these tests will also be set up at the Brussels Airport to test the prototype kit if it meets all the required specifications. To accelerate the development of the test, this research has received a 2-million-euro grant, provided by the Flemish government.

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