29 Nov, 2020
JERUSALEM WEATHER

The global race to find an effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection and even existing medications that can spur recovery is intense. But almost as urgent are ways to test carriers of the virus that provide results as simply, accurately and rapidly as possible. 

Now researchers at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beersheba say they have developed and are now validating a COVID-19 test in which samples can be collected using a simple breath test or throat and nose swabs and provide an answer in less than a minute and with 90% accuracy. 

Prof. Gabby Sarusi, deputy head for research at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a faculty member of the Electro-Optical Engineering Unit says the test will be available at a dramatically lower price than any other method available. 

Clinical trials in conjunction with Israel’s Defense Ministry on more than 120 Israelis had a better than 90% success rate compared to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests that allows a single, short region of a DNA molecule to be turned into thousands of identical copies. The ongoing trials will seek to find out whether the test can identify the specific stage of COVID-19 infection as well as its presence. 

“Right from the beginning of the trials, we received statistically significant results in line with our simulations and PCR tests,” noted Sarusi. “We are continuing clinical trials and will compare samples from COVID-19 patients with samples from patients with other diseases to see if we can identify the different stages of the COVID-19 infection.” 

He developed his chip within the framework of BGU’s Coronavirus Task Force, initiated by BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz to harness the resources and ingenuity of the university to tackle the many aspects of the pandemic.

Particles from a simple breath test or throat and nose swabs, such as are already currently used for other tests, are placed on a chip with a dense array of metamaterial sensors that was designed specifically for this purpose. The system then analyzes the biological sample and provides an accurate positive/negative result within a minute via a cloud-connected system. 

The point-of-care device automatically backs up the results into a database that can be shared by authorities, making it easier than ever to track the course of the virus, as well as triage (deciding on thedegrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients) and treat patients. 

The new method is based on the change in the resonance in the THz spectral range imposed by the coronavirus through a THz spectroscopy performed on the device. This spectral range has been employed in recent decades for the fast detection and identification of biological samples. “Since this virus is just like a nano-particle or a quantum dot with a diameter between 100nm to 140nm in terms of its size and electrical properties, we asked ourselves if we can detect it using methods from the worlds of physics, photonics and electrical engineering,” said Sarusi. 

“We discovered that the answer is yes. This virus resonates in the THz frequency, and spectroscopy in these frequencies reveals it promptly.” Each test kit would cost between $50 to $100 to produce, which is far less than current laboratory testing. Moreover, because the test is electro-optical in nature, rather than biochemical, it is not sensitive to environmental factors that can affect results of current testing methods.

Current coronavirus test kits are based on amplifying and identifying the viral RNA sequences, so they depend on costly reagents and biochemical reactions. In addition, these PCR-based kits take hours, and in many cases days, to yield results and require logistically complicated shipping and handling of sensitive and infectious biological samples.