New Covid-19 detection kit will speed up the diagnosis of the disease twice

Testing for Covid, by Mufid Majnun @ Unsplash

The coronavirus, which panicked the whole world a year ago, has returned with even stronger force. Although the recent wave of pandemics seems much more serious in terms of morbidity and mortality, this time, thanks to scientists, we have much more information about Covid-19, the course of the disease, the risk factors, which makes people feel more secure and calmer. In addition, vaccine availability gives a lot of hope that life will return to normal, according to a press release from the Vilnius University.

However, until the virus is defeated, all scientists around the world are still searching for a method to diagnose Covid-19 as quickly, cheaply, and accurately as possible. Such a method of SARS-COV-2 virus detection in Lithuania was proposed by the medical team of VU scientists. In the VU podcast “Mokslas be pamokslų” Professor Algirdas Utkus, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, claimed that this method will allow Covid-19 to be detected twice as fast.

Diagnosis now takes 6 to 24 hours

According to the scientist, the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19 worldwide today is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, when a sample from the nasopharynx is taken to search for the virus RNA. This test is very relevant in the early stages of the disease, but when performed later, RNA may no longer be detected, as the infection descends down to the lower respiratory tract, where it can cause viral pneumonia.

A timely PCR test is, of course, accurate, but results can be obtained after 6 hours or even a day, as it requires preparatory work. “First, a sample is taken from the nasopharynx or nasal mucosa, placed in a special medium and sent to the laboratory. The next step is to isolate the virus RNA from the sample, i.e., the genetic material which can be further examined by applying PCR to determine the presence of the virus RNA in the sample and to determine whether the person has the infection.”

Therefore, according to prof. Algirdas Utkus, the task of all scientists in the world is to improve the methods of diagnosing the disease, which would allow to detect this virus as quickly, accurately and cheaply as possible. The VU team of scientists is also keeping pace with foreign scientists and is trying to discover methods of virus testing that would facilitate the diagnosis of the virus.

“Our goal was to develop a nucleic acid detection kit for coronavirus and other viruses that would allow viruses to be detected directly from a sample without additional sample processing. This work has been successfully accomplished – a special detection kit has been developed to help identify the unique applications of certain specific genes,” says the geneticist.

The method is also suitable for detecting influenza

The principle of the newly discovered method is similar to the current testing as it also performs genetic tests that allow reliable identification of Covid-19 viral infection. “The difference and novelty are that samples for this test would be taken additionally from blood, urine and faeces. The new method we have developed for the detection of viral nucleic acids in these biological samples, which is already being applied under experimental conditions, will be put into practice after additional research. If everything works in the same way in working conditions, in March or April this method can be patented and used.  

Professor Algirdas Utkus, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. E. Kurauskė picture

An advanced and original direct virus detection method developed by VU researchers could halve the time it takes to detect the virus, which is very important when seeking to start treatment as early as possible and thus avoid possible serious complications of the disease.

The scientist says that the new method detects the virus in a test tube by combining one or another biological sample with a liquid nucleic acid detection kit with unique targets – Orf 1a, RdRp and N genes. If these genes are detected, it can be confirmed that this biological sample is infected with SARS-COV-2 or another virus in cases of respiratory diseases.

According to the medical scientist, this method can also be used to identify other respiratory viruses that recur every year, such as influenza A, influenza B.

Although the new method of testing Covid-19 may not become the main one today, it would be useful and effective in addition to those already in use,” claims prof. Algirdas Utkus.

The course of the disease is little affected by other infections

The interviewee says that in addition to discovering a new method of detecting the virus, the researchers also sought to investigate whether people with COVID-19 develop other respiratory infections that may affect the course of the disease. “The examination of three hundred collected samples revealed that other viral respiratory infections are relatively rare – not more than 3%, and latent tuberculosis – not more than 4%, and they do not affect the course of the disease. Therefore, we think that additional testing of people with coronavirus in order to detect other respiratory infections or latent tuberculosis makes no sense, as it is not economically viable,” says the professor.

The world is also considering whether it makes sense to test blood donors for Covid-19 infection. The recommendations that Lithuanian researchers will provide to the Ministry of Health say that it is probably not necessary to do so, as donors are usually people without health complaints.

VU researchers still plan to study the genetic peculiarities of people who have had Covid-19 infection and those who have had close contact with the patient but have not become ill.

They hypothesize that perhaps individuals who have been in close contact with an infected person and are not ill have certain genetic features that prevent the virus from attaching to the membrane of human cells, resulting in human illness. In some cases, even a genetic mutation can help prevent the disease. “For example, in the case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, it is known that a specific genetic mutation – a defect – partially protects against HIV infection. Perhaps something similar exists for Covid-19 infection, and genetic testing would certainly help to uncover that situation in our population.”

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