The Possible Solution to COVID Testing?
As students prepare to return to school, many worry that reopening the country may lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Businesses and schools hope to implement a system that focuses on frequent testing in order to limit a new wave of infections.
Current tests use a polymerase chain reaction, a process involving the creation of millions of DNA strand copies, in order to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus.
However, this technique can result in significant delays in result reporting. Current testing methods usually take, on average, two days to deliver results, significantly reducing the utility of this diagnostic tool.
Patients are left in limbo in the time period between submitting their sample and receiving their results.
Furthermore, if the patient does not adequately quarantine while waiting for results, they may become infected in the interim. This can lead to a false sense of security from a negative test result and further spread of the virus.
Nian Sun, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, has developed a sensor to address this testing delay. Professor Sun’s research at Northeastern focuses on the creation of gas sensors to identify specific molecules.
While the original goal of Professor Sun's work was to help identify the presence of illegal drugs or explosives, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to Sun modifying his gas sensing technology to address rapid testing.
His sensor includes imprinting microscopic cavities similar in shape to the crown-like protein structure found covering the virus. These cavities allow only the SARS-CoV-2 virus to bind to the sensor, which reacts with the proteins and signals the presence of the virus.
Preliminary results also show that there is no loss in sensitivity or specificity when compared with the current testing method.
Informally, Professor Sun’s device can be seen as a COVID-19 breathalyzer: results are available immediately following a patient blowing into the device. Furthermore, the device can also detect the virus on surfaces, which is much more difficult for the current testing method.
With the nation scrambling to find a better way to track and reduce the spread of COVID-19, the National Science Foundation recently funded Sun’s sensor in order to make the technology available for clinical use.
Professor Sun is currently working with Professor Jeremy Luban (University of Massachusetts Medical School) and the rest of the medical community to get emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They hope to implement their testing method via the sensor in a variety of environments.
If Sun and his team successfully obtain emergency authorization, the United States is possibly looking at the future of COVID testing and the beginning of a COVID-controlled world.
Written by Zachary Ostrow
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Calvin Ma & Gihyen Eom