September 29, 2020

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HKUST develops world’s fastest coronavirus detection device

Currently, the early detection of people infected with the novel Coronavirus has become an imminent challenge around the world as the epidemic continues to develop.

A team of researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) recently invented the world’s fastest portable 2019-nCoV detection device.

With the latest microfluidic chip technology, the device can detect the virus in just 40 minutes from sampling to testing, compared to the currently-used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology which takes between 1.5 to 3 hours.

PCR technology is molecular biotechnology used to amplify specific DNA fragments for the extraction of viral RNA, and the speed of temperature change is the key that determines the efficiency of the DNA’s amplification process, meaning the faster the temperature rises, the shorter the device can come up with a test result.

Unlike conventional large-scale PCR devices which use a semiconductor to heat up testing samples, the team led by a professor from HKUST’s Department of Physics developed a novel silicon-based micro-heater module for the purpose.

The micro-heater, which has lower thermal mass and better thermal conductivity, could speed up temperature rises to around 30°C per second from an average of 4-5°C per second in conventional PCR devices, greatly reducing the detection time.

Leveraging on Shenzhen Shineway Technology – a biotechnology start-up company co-founded by the lead professor and his doctoral graduate – the team started this research immediately after obtaining the new coronavirus sequence on 20 January and came up with the testing kit within a week.

The new device is already in use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, while two more sets were being delivered to the CDCP in Hubei and Nansha.

The device has obtained international CE certification (EU standard) and is qualified for export to all European Union (EU) countries as well as Hong Kong.

The detection device uses standard rapid testing tools such as those used for influenza: a quick screen is used to take a sample of the nasal cavity, which is then put into the analyser to determine the result.

Measuring just 33cm long, 32cm wide and 16cm high, the equipment set is light and portable, which is suitable for rapid on-site testing in places such as centres for disease control and prevention, customs, entry-exit inspection and quarantine departments, as well as nursing homes for the elderly.

Each device is equipped with a microfluidic portable PCR analyser, a pre-processing instrument, a bioassay chip and the novel coronavirus nucleic acid detection kits. It can test up to 8 samples simultaneously.

The biotechnology start-up company focuses on the development of real-time in vitro diagnosis technology of nucleic acid molecules, its core team members are all researchers or graduates of HKUST.

According to an earlier report by OpenGov Asia, many large tech companies are facing new challenges due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China.

The virus is spreading from one country to another and is worrying not just for governments, but also for industries such as the tech sector.

Tech companies have closed stores and offices, restricted executives and workers from travelling to the country and warned about the potential effects on their supply chains.

The Chinese government has barred people from leaving Wuhan and Hubei, the provinces surrounding it, and severely restricted them from moving around in public — measures that have forced most industrial production to stop in the province.

Producers of smartphones and other consumer electronics could face a loss of revenue and productivity due to workers told to stay home and factories shut by government order.

In addition, the virus will affect the global technology industry as it has struck the largest manufacturing hub in the world.

Travel restrictions to China are a significant burden for the companies, given the country’s role as the largest manufacturing hub in the world and a place where employees travel frequently.

The governments of six Chinese provinces, including manufacturing hubs crucial for the global technology industry such as Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Chongqing, declared that the return to work after the Lunar New Year be delayed by a week to February 10 for all but essential industries.

Thus, this new detection device by researchers at HKUST is likely to ease the strain on local hospitals and help manage the outbreak so that tech – and other – industries can get back on track.