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Team of Clinicians Develop Automated Method for COVID-19 Swabbing

Clinicians from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and Singapore General Hospital (SGH) partnered with Biobot Surgical Pte Ltd, to develop a robot to automate nasal swabbing for COVID-19 testing.

Nasal swabbing is a method of sample collection for the diagnosis of COVID-19. In April 2020, a project to create the first automated nasal swab robot was initiated by a diverse team of clinicians from a number of specialities, including Head and Neck Surgery, Vascular Surgery, Internal Medicine, and Otorhinolaryngology. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team identified the need to perform specimen collection through nasal swabs safely, efficiently, as well as to reduce risk of exposure of the healthcare workers.

Principal Investigator Dr Rena Dharmawan, Associate Consultant in Head and Neck Surgery, Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology at NCCS, and Clinical Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Centre of Technology & Development (CTeD) at Duke-NUS Medical School, said “Our team felt that we had to find a better way to swab patients to reduce the risk of exposure of COVID-19 to our healthcare workers, especially when patients sneeze or cough, during the swabbing process.”

The initiative was a collaboration with the team of clinicians and Biobot Surgical Pte Ltd, to develop the concept of a nasal swabbing robot into a clinical prototype within three months. As a result of this collaboration, the nasal swabbing robot, SwabBot, was created help address the limitations of manual COVID-19 swabbing by reducing swabbers’ risk of exposure to the virus, reducing the need for trained manpower, standardising the consistency of swabs taken and providing greater throughput of swab tests. Time needed for the swab by the robot was recorded to be 20 seconds from start to finish.

SwabBot is a self-administered robot which allows individuals being swabbed to have control of the activation and termination of the swabbing process. When ready, individuals use their chin to activate the robot and begin the swabbing process. The robot extends the swab safely and gently through the nose to the back of the nasal cavity, which is typically about 10cm from the nostrils.

To ensure the safety of the individual, the robot has a built-in feature, which retracts the swab stick if there is resistance when moving deeper into the nasal cavity. In the unlikely case that the individual is unable to tolerate the process, they can terminate it by moving their head away from the robot.

“We are thankful for the synergistic collaboration between our team of clinician and engineering inventors. SwabBot never needs to stop for lunch and never suffers from fatigue. Even after many swabs, it retains the same gentle touch and precision as surgeons who perform very delicate procedures. Furthermore, the sample quality remains consistent even though nose structures can vary in size and shapes. What’s even better, individuals are in full control of the swabbing process throughout!” said Dr Luke Tay, Consultant, Department of Vascular Surgery, SGH.

As part of an ongoing clinical trial to compare the use of SwabBot with manual swabbing by humans, 75 patients from SGH and Bright Vision Hospital have been recruited.

Mr Sim Kok Hwee, CEO of Biobot Surgical and its holding company ZIG Ventures, is thankful for the introduction to the SingHealth clinicians by a mutual friend, Mr Abel Ang, CEO of Advanced Medtech, and also the rapid pace at which the concept was rapidly prototyped by diversified engineering company, Zicom Group.

“When we developed the SwabBot, we envisaged a self-swabbing device that could be deployed and used, similar to how self-checkout systems are now prevalent in the supermarkets. This should be especially effective for rostered routine testing and reduce manpower involved in swabbing operations.”

SingHealth, the public healthcare cluster which NCCS and SGH are part of, has filed a patent for this technology together with Biobot Surgical Pte Ltd. SwabBot has been registered with the Health Science Authority as a Class A medical device and BioBot is in preparation for CE marking for global commercialisation. The team is confident that SwabBot will be an invaluable addition to Singapore’s COVID-19 testing to complement manual swabbing in the near future. [APBN]