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New Quick, Easy Covid-19 Test Will Help In Population Screening

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Experts fighting the Covid-19 pandemic emphasize testing as a way to combat the virus from spreading faster. There is a constant search for a quick and accurate test to diagnose the virus. The present-day kits depend on real-time qPCR that requires sophisticated equipment and trained staff to swab, collect, and operate it and is expensive too.

Scientists from the Vienna BioCenter have come up with a robust, cheaper, and faster test than the conventional tests. Called the 'bead-LAMP' and 'HomeDip-LAMP', the test could be a game-changer, especially for developing countries where the pandemic is just spiraling. It can provide population-wide screening.


Scientists across institutes joined forces (left to right): Max Kellner, Jakob Schnabl, Julian Ross, Andrea Pauli, and Julius Brennecke.

The Vienna researchers and their collaborators have used an old established nucleic acid detection test to base their new method on. The “Loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP)” in use since the last 20 years is easy and quick to use and is a viable alternative for routine SARS-CoV-2 detection. The Viennese team worked on improving the test so that it could be used for Covid-19 detection.

The new RT-LAMP method breaks open the virus cells and employ a simple reaction in which the viral RNA is converted into DNA and amplified billionfold within less than 30 minutes. The multitude DNA thus generated can be observed with the naked eye by a visual color change from purple to sky-blue in the reaction tube. Combining this method with a simple RNA enrichment step is at the heart of the newly developed method as it boosts sensitivity by orders of magnitude.

This is a simple method not requiring specialist equipment nor expert skills. The only thing required is a stable 63°C temperature during the 30 minutes of the reaction, which is easily done.

This is a sensitive and effective method to screen infected Covid-19 patients.

"Our method builds on existing protocols developed for pathogen detection”, says Julius Brennecke of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “For SARS-CoV-2-detection, we managed to improve it to a level that matches qPCR-like sensitivity on crude patient samples. We are extremely excited and can barely wait to see it applied. We expect that these improvements, including the ability to perform pooled screening, will make a real difference not only in developing countries, but in low-resource environments anywhere in the World. Sensitive, affordable and rapid SARS-CoV-2 screening and diagnostics approaches are much needed now.”

Andrea Pauli of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) said that it all started through a coincidence. An Austrian PhD student from Cambridge, who worked on isothermal applications, got stranded in his hometown Vienna during the lockdown. He started working on new testing methods with Vienna BioCenter PhD students--Julian Ross and Jakob Schnabl. The group came together to test their skills in this new direction and came up with this novel innovative improvement on the old RT-LAMP test.

The adopting of the RT-LAMP test will be pathbreaking for countries like India, Brazil, and other developing nations where testing is restricted due to the paucity of kits and the expense involved. Even if the governments are willing to go ahead, the sheer numbers are not manageable with test results,, sometimes taking 5-6 days to come.

This simple, effective, and inexpensive method can be used for quick detection and isolation, preventing further spread. There are even some studies that say that undertaking population-wide testing could be an effective method to halt the virus in its spread. The new RT-LAMP test using the DNA amplification model might just be the answer.

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