One of the major problems in controlling the coronavirus is that there are not enough reliable and speedy tests and labs. In Israel, one major testing lab shut down this week because its head took sick with COVID-19.
In light of the severe constraints in performing a sufficient amount of coronavirus tests in Israel, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot has decided to contribute significantly to the national mission and use its advanced laboratories to perform coronavirus tests. In parallel, Weizmann Institute scientists are developing an advanced and very efficient testing approach with a significantly reduced risk.
A few years ago, the institute of Science set up the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine (G-INCPM). The center, located on its Rehovot campus, operates an advanced, world-class research facility. This laboratory has a number of advanced polymerase chain reaction (PCR) devices that are capable of performing rapid and efficient identification of genes. This is a widely molecular biology technique used to quickly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample and amplify them to a large enough amount to study in detail. PCR was invented in 1983 by Kary Mullis.
During a number of meetings held in recent days, attended by heads of the Israel National Security Council, Health Ministry officials and others, the possibility of operating the Weizmann labs is being considered to significantly increase the amount of coronavirus diagnostic tests that are performed in Israel.
At the same time, and in coordination with examining these possibilities, Weizmann Institute scientists are developing a new test method that could help with the global fight against coronavirus. This technique will be based on a process that involves fewer testing stages compared to existing tests, and at the same time, greatly reduces the biological risk to which the teams that perform the tests are exposed.
Institute president Prof. Alon Chen noted: “The Weizmann Institute of Science is an integral part of Israeli society, and we consider it our duty and right to contribute to and help the State of Israel and its nation in dealing with the global coronavirus crisis. During this crisis, we are harnessing our capabilities in basic research and applying them to the benefit of humanity.”
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 infection spreads in clusters to help slowdown its spread, early identification of these clusters is urgently needed.
To identify these clusters, Weizmann Institute scientists Profs. Eran Segal and Benjamin Geiger, together with Prof. Yuval Dor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and physicians of the Health Ministry in Jerusalem developed a questionnaire for assessing the development of symptoms of the disease. The scientists want to harness the Israeli public and ask every citizen to complete the questionnaire once a day.
Such information will allow faster detection of spreading zones and patients; getting a current snapshot of the number of people in each area who have symptoms; prediction of subsequent spreading zones a few days before an outbreak occurs; and evaluation of the effectiveness of the various social distancing measures taken and how much this contributes to reducing the number of people suffering from symptoms, The method, the researchers said, will provide a tool that will help the ministry to decide which areas will need to strengthen measures of social distancing and which areas can be more lenient.
A pilot questionnaire that has already been launched in Hebrew and English has received a great response from the public. From preliminary analyses of the data, the scientists estimate that it can indeed be used to detect current and future spreading zones.
The anonymous questionnaire does not diagnose virus infection, and all data will be used solely for the purpose of monitoring the spread of the virus. The scientists are using all means possible to maintain the privacy of users and information security.
The questionnaire in English can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/v8ga66h