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Mass COVID-19 screening possible in ‘weeks’

Mass screening of public service workers for COVID-19 could be weeks away, according to an Oxford biotech company which is preparing to release a portable test it says gives results in little over an hour.

Oxford Nanopore says the device could be used to test every police officer, care home worker or teacher once a week, allowing them to go to work knowing they do not have the virus.

Like existing tests for the presence of the virus, the device analyses swabs, but because it is portable it can be brought to the infection, avoiding the time-consuming process where swabs are sent to the laboratory.

The test has been validated internally by Oxford Nanopore and is now going through further testing before it is shown to regulators.

The company’s CEO says it could be in the field in a matter of weeks.

“In the next six to eight weeks, we will be able to hit one million [tests] a month, and we can double that and double it again,” Gordon Sanghera told Sky News.

“You have to be able to test in real time, or near real time, at the point of infection and close it down rapidly. So I think it’s a game-changer.”

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The test can be used on surfaces as well as people, so it could detect coronavirus on hospital door handles or bed rails.

It can process as many as 30,000 samples a day, according to the company, which claims it is as accurate as existing tests for the presence of the virus.

The government has high hopes for the devices, which could solve many of the problems that have made it difficult to test large numbers of people with the speed necessary to outpace the virus.

Oxford Nanospore Headquarters
Image: Oxford Nanospore headquarters

Speaking yesterday at the government’s daily press conference, Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the test as one of a number of innovations that could “deliver testing with a rapid turnaround”.

Although Mr Hancock added that “like all R&D, lots of projects don’t come off” and said he was backing research efforts “before you know for sure if they are going to work”.

Oxford Nanopore’s test uses a device called LamPORE, which comes in two sizes: desktop and handheld. The portable machine is the size of a disc drive and costs around £1,000.

Dr Sanghera said the small machine could be used in a school or a care home. The desktop machine, which is the size of a home printer, could sit permanently in a factory or an office.

Unlike existing tests, which add fluorescent markers to samples of the virus, LamPORE uses an electronic method, which means it is not necessary to use the complex PCR machine involved in fluorescent marking.

The method is known as loop-mediated isothermal amplification, or LAMP for short, which gives the device its name.

Oxford Nanopore says it is possible to analyse thousands of samples at the same time, because each one is given a “barcode” which can identify it later.

The company, which is valued at over £1bn, is known for its portable DNA sequencer, which was hailed as a breakthrough by scientists when it was released in 2015 after nine years of development.

Professor Andrew Beggs, who is testing Oxford Nanopore’s machine at his lab in the University of Birmingham, said the technology could offer a route to mass screening.

“It would be much easier than what we currently do,” he told Sky News.

“You can devolve these devices down to very local level, like a GP surgery, and everyone could be tested there, rather than having mass at scale testing.”

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