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App uses smartphone cameras to test for Covid, with high accuracy

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App uses smartphone cameras to test for Covid, with high accuracy

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Researchers continue to work to make it much easier – and cheaper – to test for Covid-19.

A team led by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara announced on Friday that they have designed a system that uses a smartphone’s camera to perform Covid tests, with an accuracy that could match laboratory PCR tests.

In a peer-reviewed study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, scientists said the kits could provide test results in 25 minutes and were designed to be more reliable than most home tests currently on the market.

“Rapid antigen tests that people buy commercially are inexpensive and quick, but they can be inaccurate,” said Michael Mahan, a professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UC Santa Barbara. “On the other hand, PCR tests are the gold standard because they are accurate and very sensitive, but they are very expensive and time-consuming.”

The system uses a smartphone camera, a custom app and a test kit to measure the reactions that occur when a saliva sample is mixed with a chemical solution.

The need for better access to cheap and accurate Covid tests has taken on renewed urgency in recent months as the omicron variant has driven up case rates across much of the United States and around the world. The White House said on Friday that 60 million American households had ordered free at-home Covid tests through a government website launched less than two weeks ago.

Companies and researchers continue to develop new ways to test for Covid, with some startups trying to bring lab-quality testing to people’s homes, some of which are also using smartphones.

Dubbed smaRT-LAMP, the UC Santa Barbara team’s test system works by analyzing saliva samples for bits of genetic material from the coronavirus. The kit required to run the application consists of a dish to hold the saliva sample, a hot plate, LED lights and a specially formulated cocktail of chemicals that includes fluorescent dye, which lights up as reactions occur.

A sample of saliva is mixed into the solution and placed in the dish, then the hot plate heats the mixture. The accompanying smartphone app is programmed to use the device’s camera to take photos every 10 seconds during the test to analyze the results.

Mahan said it would initially cost around $100 to set up the whole system, but added that it doesn’t require any specialized equipment or expertise to operate. After that, an individual test — including the necessary chemical solution — could be run for less than $7, he said.

Rapid home antigen tests can be purchased in the United States for around $10 to $25, while PCR tests, which require laboratory analysis, can cost up to $150. US health insurance providers are now required to pay for up to eight rapid home tests per person per month, and since January 19, US residents can also order four free home tests from the federal government.

To evaluate their test system, the UC Santa Barbara researchers took samples from 20 symptomatic Covid patients at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, as well as 30 asymptomatic people, then performed blind testing. The results from all 50 samples matched the PCR test results with 100% accuracy, Mahan said.

Mahan and his colleagues developed the testing system for healthcare providers because it could be a low-cost alternative for communities with limited access to laboratory PCR testing. But they said they hoped it could eventually be widely used as a home diagnostic tool.

“We hope technologies like this offer new ways to bring cutting-edge diagnostics to underserved and vulnerable populations,” said David Low, professor of biomolecular science and engineering at UC Santa Barbara, in a statement.

The researchers’ technology and methods are open source, which means anyone can assemble and use the system. The application was developed for Android operating systems and can now be downloaded from the Google Play Store. Mahan said he hopes an iOS version will be available in the future as other researchers use the tool and improve it.

“The idea wasn’t to patent it,” Mahan said. “It’s free and open source because we want it to be used. People are struggling and we just wanted it to be something good for the world. »

Mahan added that he plans to one day market assembled test kits to simplify the process. However, the researchers have not yet sought clearance from the Food and Drug Administration.

In addition to Covid-19, Mahan said, the tests can detect cases of influenza and may even be adapted in the future to flag the presence of other pathogens, including salmonella or E. coli.

App uses smartphone cameras to test for Covid, with high accuracy

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