Researchers at Oxford University have developed a new test for the novel coronavirus that they say yields results more than three times faster than current diagnostics and is significantly simpler to use. Whereas previous viral RNA tests typically took up to two hours to produce a positive or negative finding, the new technology delivers results in just half an hour. ‘The beauty of this new test lies in the design of the viral detection that can specifically recognise Sars-CoV-2 (Covid-19) RNA and RNA fragments,’ explained Wei Huang, a synthetic biologist who co-led the Oxford team. Huang said the new diagnostic has built-in checks to guard against false positives or negatives, and he also said that the results have been ‘highly accurate’ thus far.

As the technology is extremely sensitive, the Oxford team says that it can identify patients in early stages of infection and thereby potentially reduce the spread of the Covid-19, which the World Health Organization officially labelled a pandemic on 11 March. This new test only requires a simple heat-block that maintains a constant temperature for RNA reverse transcription and DNA amplification, and the result can be read off using the naked eye. The latter quality means that it could be especially valuable in rural settings or at community healthcare centres.

The new diagnostic was validated with clinical samples from China. The hospital ran the rapid detection kits on 16 samples, including 8 positives and 8 negatives that were confirmed by conventional reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction methods, as well as other clinical evidence. The new kit successfully identified from the samples which patients had been diagnosed with Covid-19.