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A new method that according to scientists offers speed, ease of operation, high sensitivity and portability could be a game-changer in coronavirus testing, Chinese scientists claimed as they presented the promising results of a recent trial.
The team, from Fudan University in Shanghai, say they have a solution to the relatively long waiting times that come with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
While these are considered the most accurate and sensitive in the market, they present a time-related disadvantage that in periods of heavy demand has led to serious backlogs in the processing of results – particularly during the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
The Fudan researchers said: “We implemented an electromechanical biosensor for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 into an integrated and portable prototype device, and show that it detected [the virus RNA] in less than four minutes.”
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In a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering on Monday, they explained their sensor, by using microelectronics to analyse genetic material from swabs, can avoid the need for a lab to examine users’ samples.
With PCR tests requiring a lab infrastructure, which in many countries is limited and thus lowers the number of cases that can be dealt with per day, the proposed new testing method would eliminate an important barrier.
Also, although rapid diagnostic tests — most popularly, antigen tests — have now become available in many parts of the world, they are generally less accurate.
The scientists’ trial involved taking samples from 33 people in Shanghai who were infected with the coronavirus, with PCR tests conducted in parallel.
According to the Nature Biomedical Engineering article, the results from their method showed a “perfect” match with PCR tests, and the researchers said the trialled cases did not yield any false positives.
The team claimed that once developed, their device can be used for quick testing in a variety of scenarios, including health facilities, airports or train stations, and “even at home”.
If their method gets the green light to enter the market, it will join a long list of tests made in China, which is one of the world’s biggest makers of Covid test kits.
As per customs data, in December, just two years after the coronavirus started to dominate global headlines and people’s lives, China exported $1.6billion (about £1.18billion) worth of test kits.
This represented a 144 percent increase from November – hinting there is still room for business.
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The news of a potentially fast and highly accurate COVID-19 test comes amid reports of a concerning virus outbreak in Hong Kong, where officials confirmed 614 new cases on Monday – the highest number since the pandemic began.
The figure, vastly comprised of Omicron cases, doubled the previous day’s total.
While the government said it remained optimistic that Hong Kong’s strict tracing and containment strategies could keep things under control, residents were urged to minimise their social outings.
Edwin Tsui, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said: “If you continue with such gatherings the epidemic will not stop, but if we all work together and minimise social gatherings hopefully from today we can actually suppress the spread of the disease.”
By “such gatherings”, it is thought Mr Tsui meant last week’s lunar new year festivities, to which the sharp spike is largely attributed.
Hong Kong is known for its Covid-zero policy, which is also in place in mainland China.
While it has been labelled as life-saving and credited with protecting the country’s health system, the latest outbreak calls into question whether the approach is sustainable in the long run.
Yet, city leader Carrie Lam confirmed officials intended to adhere to the “dynamic zero”.
She said on Tuesday: “We should contain the spread of the virus as much and as fast as possible.
“We need your support, we need your cooperation. You only need to stay at home.”
In the UK, 66,183 Covid cases were reported on Tuesday – a 29 percent drop in a fortnight thought a slight spike from Monday’s registered 57,623 cases.
A further 314 deaths bring the total toll since the start of the pandemic to 158,677.
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