Hand of researcher holds test tube with blood for Coronavirus 2019-nCOV test.

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POHANG, South Korea — As coronavirus testing has shown, anyone could have COVID-19, even the President of the United States. While testing for the virus is effective, the process is neither speedy nor pleasant for the patient. Researchers in South Korea are aiming to change this with a new test they say can produce results in less than an hour.

A team at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) find their diagnostic kit can successfully spot the nucleic acids of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, from live patient samples in just 30 minutes. They add that this new device can be made into a portable and easy-to-use kit which would greatly reduce the burden on testing facilities around the world.

The SENSR (SENsitive Splint-based one-pot isothermal RNA detection) technology focuses on highlighting the presence of virus RNA. This material is not just present in the human body, but in some viruses too. Ribonucleic acids (RNA) carry genetic information and also helps control the expression of genes.

Shedding some light on COVID-19

POSTECH researchers say the new kit produces a nucleic acid binding reaction when combining with patient samples. Positive reactions to the virus produce fluorescence (emit light) around the SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

The study finds this system is highly accurate, just like the current PCR molecular tests for coronavirus. The problem with the current system is the time and difficulty involved in testing the public. The most common method of testing for COVID-19 uses nasopharyngeal swabs to take samples from the back of a patient’s throat. This “brain tickling” approach is not only uncomfortable, the PCR results take several days to process.

The Korean researchers believe their creation will allow more testing to reach smaller villages as well as airports. The study adds many airports do not engage in active coronavirus testing; instead opting to have flyers without symptoms fill out a contact tracing form when entering a new state or country.

“This method is a fast and simple diagnostic technology which can accurately analyze the RNA without having to treat a patient’s sample,” Professor Jeong Wook Lee says in a university release.

Quicker coronavirus tests during the next health emergency

The POSTECH team finds SENSR technology can also detect the RNA of other viruses besides COVID-19. Their tests revealed five other pathogenic viruses and bacterial RNA while examining samples of COVID-19 patients.

The findings are providing new confidence that scientists can deliver rapid testing kits, especially in the event of a future pandemic. Study authors report that the SENSR kit can be modified to detect a new infectious disease within days of its discovery.

“We can better prepare for future epidemics as we can design and produce a diagnostic kit for new infectious diseases within a week,” Prof. Jeong says.

“The fact that pathogenic RNAs can be detected with high accuracy and sensitivity, and that it can be diagnosed on the spot is drawing attention from academia as well as industry circles,” Professor Gyoo Yeol Jung adds. “We hope to contribute to our response to COVID-19 by enhancing the current testing system.”

The study appears in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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