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Flanders signs for fast SARS-CoV-2 test using exhaled air

EUR 2 million. That’s how much the government of Flanders is earmarking to support the development of a groundbreaking new SARS-CoV-2 test. Both imec, Flanders’ strategic research center for nano- and digital tech, and UZ Leuven, one of the region’s university hospitals, will put their shoulders to the development wheel.

40 researchers, 1-minute test, results in 5 minutes

Unlike current test methods – which use blood, saliva or nasopharyngeal samples from the nose/throat –, the new method will use exhaled air. No fewer than 40 imec researchers are currently working full time on developing the new test, which only requires people to exhale for 1 minute in order to detect the coronavirus. A first prototype has already been made at imec’s lab in Leuven, Flanders. Needless to say, expectations are high. “But the outlook is hopeful,” confirms leading virologist Marc Van Ranst (KU Leuven).

According to the researchers, the test will give a reliable result about someone’s infectivity in just 5 minutes. This will allow for much faster and more extensive testing, an important condition to managing epidemics and limiting their socioeconomic impact. For the development and clinical validation of the new test method, imec will be working together with Leuven University Hospital. By the summer of 2021, imec wants to start testing a functional prototype at Brussels Airport, which is one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and vaccine distribution hubs.

Resolving limitations

The new SARS-CoV-2 test will help resolve various limitations associated with current testing methods and diagnostic tools. Currently, the most sensitive and reliable tool is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which detects the presence of the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a sample taken from the nose or pharynx. However, the disadvantage is that the sample can only be taken by trained medical staff and is described by many patients as very uncomfortable. Moreover, the test comes with a processing time (in a clinical lab) of about two days.

Rapid antigen tests, on the other hand, are less reliable. Finally, serological tests, which use blood samples, may be faster and less expensive than PCR tests, but only verify whether a person has produced antibodies. As such, they only test whether a person has been in contact with the virus in the past.

“All these tests may provide information about a current or past infection, but they don't really say anything about the extent to which someone can still pass on the virus,” explains Peter Peumans, CTO of Health Technologies at imec. “That's why, together with UZ Leuven, we are developing a test that can tell within five minutes whether a person carries the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether they are contagious.”

The benefits of using exhaled air

“It is also important for our solution to be very accessible,” Peumans adds. “As such, it detects virus particles that may be present in the microscopic water-based particles exhaled by the patient. After all, research has shown that these particles are the main transmission route for the virus.”

“If the solution we develop yields good results, testing for the transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will become much easier, faster and possible on a larger scale. But we are also looking ahead… Indeed, with our new test, we also want to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to the advance of other viruses and germs that spread via exhaled particles – such as influenza, RSV and tuberculosis.”

Potential game changer

Peter Piot, microbiologist and member of the European Commission’s COVID-19 advisory group, confirms: “It’s clear that the virus is transmitted presymptomatically via exhaled particles. A SARS-CoV-2 test based on exhaled air in combination with rapid molecular analysis has the potential of becoming a game changer. With such a test, it becomes possible to immediately check if there is a big chance that someone is transmitting the virus. A test based on exhaled air is also much less invasive than a test with cotton swabs or saliva, which makes it easier to test frequently.”

“I’m confident that we are off to a flying start thanks to the capital injection from the government of Flanders,” comments Luc Van den hove, CEO of imec. “After all, funding and financing  have a direct influence on the speed with which we will be able to bring this test to the market.”

From tech development to clinical study and prototype testing

Meanwhile, imec’s researchers have already started to develop the underlying technology, which consists of a sample collector and an analytical device. Van den hove: “In the next phase of the project, we will set up an extensive clinical study in collaboration with specialists from UZ Leuven. Finally, by the summer of 2021, we aim to test a functional prototype at Brussels Airport, so that the final solution immediately meets all the requirements to allow people to travel and meet each other safely.”       

“With our years of experience in the development of molecular diagnostic tests, UZ Leuven will support a comprehensive clinical study,” comments Professor Katrien Lagrou, head of the molecular diagnostic laboratory at UZ Leuven. Arnoud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport Company adds: “We are convinced that a fast, reliable test will be key to the recovery of the airline industry. Creating a safe environment for our passengers is our top priority. In this context, it is imperative that we can rely on a quick and reliable test such as the one developed by imec and UZ Leuven.”

More info

Reported by
imec, De Tijd newspaper
27 October 2020

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