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Fastest or Most Precise?

As companies and universities around the world scramble to develop fast and accurate test kits for the detection of COVID-19, two have thrust themselves into the spotlight: University of Macau, which constructed a kit that takes less than 30 minutes for analysis, and Novacyt, which designed a test that detects only the 2019 strain of the virus.

by Shaun Tan Yi Jie

At the start of the COVID-19 epidemic in China, thousands of patients were being turned away daily by overstretched hospitals struggling with a slow and complex diagnosis method that takes several hours to a day.The desire for a fast and portable device operable without highly trained personnel could not be overstated by medical professionals battered by a never-ending onslaught of terrified and irascible patients. And then a team from University of Macau came to the rescue.


Need for speed: Virus Hunter

“Recently our team began to examine […] the tool with [COVID-19],” said Professor Rui Martins, director of University of Macau’s State Key Laboratory of Analog and Mixed-Signal VLSI.

The tool, which has been dubbed Virus Hunter, works by collecting samples of a person’s nasal mucus, which are then placed in a detection chip. The chip is then analysed by a machine, which delivers the result in less than 30 minutes, one of the fastest reported thus far.

“It is based on our patented intelligent digital microfluidic technology. Electronic automation and small sample volume usage are the key of our technology to allow fast detection,” Martins explained to Asia-Pacific Biotech News (APBN).

In addition to unparalleled speed, the small sample volume usage also proffers a bonus advantage of low risk of contamination. And Martins believes this new kit holds an upper hand over other devices in the market because it is based on nucleic acid detection, which is much more trustworthy for detecting non-obvious early virus infections. That is not to mention the fact that Virus Hunter is a low-cost system that could be operated through a user-friendly computer interface. “We are still optimizing the manufacturing cost for different applications, and the cost should be a few times cheaper than the benchtop counterpart,” the university’s vice-rector for global affairs revealed to APBN.

When challenged on whether the astonishing analysis speed of Virus Hunter might cause its accuracy to be compromised, Martins assured the magazine that
“[t]he accuracy of our device is already comparable with its benchtop counterpart”, although he concedes that “the overall system accuracy depends on more factors, such as sample preparation (from a 3rd party company)”.

Martins envisions that while initially the test kit would be operated mostly by doctors and other healthcare personnel, at a later stage other professionals such as immigration officers would be able to use the device. One could imagine this would be a godsend for beleaguered frontline medical workers overwhelmed by the sheer amount of testing they face.

Asked how his team managed to come up with the device on such short notice, Martins reminded us that “[i]t has been developed for more than 9 years, and the technology is not only for coronavirus detection, but also for other markets such as flu detection and food-quality monitoring”. It is now just being fine-tuned to detect COVID-19.

So, we can expect it on the market soon? “We will rise [sic] the production when we can get the essential parts from the manufacturing companies which are not yet reopened due to the coronavirus. We hope to have a [sic]significant progress in the coming 2 months,” concluded Professor Martins.


Primerdesign and Precision

Meanwhile, another team in the United Kingdom took a radically different approach, with a radically different end goal. Instead of improvising on an existing system, Novacyt’s molecular diagnostics division Primerdesign tailor-made a diagnostic test kit for this pandemic, with precision as the objective.

“This test was designed from scratch, from the ground up,” Adam Herridge, Product Manager at Novacyt, disclosed to APBN. “Our team of expert bioinformatics took the unorthodox method to break away from the WHO design and select a region of the virus genome with higher variability with other strains. This means the detection […] is superior to our competitors who designed prior to strain-specific sequence information becoming available. Our kit detects only the 2019-nCoV strain,” Herridge stressed, referring to COVID-19 by its previous name.

The company believes that this ability of the test differentiates it from other existing tests, which may also react to other related species giving rise to a false diagnosis. Herridge further adds that “our reagents, including master mix, are supplied lyophilised where a lot of competitors supply wet reagents. This means ours can be shipped around the globe at ambient temperatures,” eliminating the need for cold chain shipping in tropical climates and potentially reducing transportation costs and loss of product, “and can be used in low resources settings such as field laboratories and other situations where refrigeration capacity is limited.”

The Novacyt kit, which works based on the well-established polymerase chain reaction principle, can generate results in less than two hours, Herridge said. When we mentioned Professor Martins’ work and questioned whether that made Novacyt’s test obsolete, Herridge was unfazed. “As mentioned about our design work, our detection profile is superior to the competition. Some competitors are detecting more than 1 gene; this is unnecessary if a design is specific to a target. We have confidence in our design and believe that our kit is favourable compared with other commercially available kits.”

It is no wonder Herridge has such high confidence in his company’s product, when we found out that Primerdesign has a stellar track record in delivering during healthcare crises. “Our team of bioinformaticians and scientists have a history of being able to respond quickly to emergent health threats such as this. In 2009 Primerdesign was the first company to develop a test for Swine Flu. We were also the first to provide a molecular solution to testing for contamination of horse meat in the food adulteration scandal in Europe, as well as first responders to develop a test for the MERS outbreak in 2013. Our team have a highly specialist way of designing our assays, and the layout of the organisation is streamlined which facilitates fast workflow in situations such as this.”

With such an exceptional reputation, the company must have had thousands of pre-orders already? But Herridge was cryptic on this front, refusing to divulge the exact number, saying only that “demand is high, and we’ve orders and enquiries from all over the world”. The advanced kit with 150 reactions, including master mix and all necessary controls, is available for purchase on the firm’s website at £693. [APBN]

About the Interviewees

Dr. Rui Martins is Chair Professor at University of Macau since 2013, Vice Rector since 1997, and founding Director of its State Key Laboratory of Analog and Mixed-Signal VLSI. Professor Martins is also an IEEE fellow, and has founded 3 companies.


Mr Adam Herridge is Product Manager at Primerdesign Ltd, Novacyt since 2019. He is also molecular subject matter expert for Novacyt Group marketing.