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This breakthrough could be a huge turning point for the coronavirus pandemic

Published Oct 27th, 2020 12:16AM EDT
Coronavirus Test Results
Image: Fabian/Adobe

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  • Coronavirus tests with nasal swabs are accurate but results don’t often come in for 3-7 days.
  • Researchers from the University of Teheran have discovered a way to return coronavirus test results in 30 seconds.
  • The method already has a temporary certificate from the FDA and works by examining an individual’s phlegm for signs of the virus.

The first time I saw an illustration depicting what a coronavirus nasal swab test looked like, it was jarring, to say the least. Even though friends assured me that it looked worse than it actually was, the prospect of someone jamming a swab all the way up my nose and twirling it around for a few seconds didn’t exactly sound like a pleasant experience. Since then, I’ve had two coronavirus tests and can attest that the test itself is certainly uncomfortable, but not anything to be afraid of.

While the current nasal swab testing method is accurate, getting a result back can sometimes take anywhere from 3-7 days, depending of course on how backlogged a testing center is. This delay is somewhat problematic insofar that individuals who get tested and are waiting a few days for their results may unwittingly spread the virus to others in the interim. Put simply, many health experts for some time have said that faster coronavirus testing results would help combat the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading.

The good news is that researchers from the University of Tehran have found that testing sputum, otherwise known as phlegm, can yield evidence of the coronavirus right away, in about 30 seconds flat. The bad news is that producing a workable phlegm sample isn’t exactly straight forward and involves covering your mouth with one hand, covering your stomach with the other, and coughing aggressively to help bring phlegm to the surface and into a tube.

From there, Gizmodo details how the testing proceeds:

Each individual tube is tested using a probe with a disposable sensor, made with multi-wall carbon nanotubes, that’s connected to an integrated monitor, he told IEEE Spectrum. The sensor is calibrated according to the presence and severity of covid-19 in patients. The results are displayed on the monitor in 30 seconds.

Calibrating the sensor to correlate with the presence and severity of covid-19 was one of the first challenges the researchers faced, [Professor Mohammad] Abdolahad said. To understand the differences between covid-19 and other respiratory diseases, the researchers tested more than 100 people.

More details on the testing procedures can be viewed over here via IEEE Spectrum.

As to how close the prototype is to becoming a finished product, Abdolahad explains that it’s already been granted a temporary green light from the FDA:

We [completed developing the system] and received a temporary certificate from the Iranian Food and Drug Administration that allows us to sell the system to medical centers. Our U.S. patent was also received its Notice of the Office communication on four main claims and passed the examiner queries. Hence it will be granted soon.

The sensor has been deployed in four hospitals, as a non-invasive real-time complementary system, for further observational clinical trials.

So while the new method may not be a game-changer just yet, it will be interesting to see how this develops and if it becomes more common in hospitals and other testing centers going forward.

Incidentally, there already exists a rapid test for the coronavirus that can yield results in one day, but it’s been found that these tests aren’t always reliable.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.