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New Zealand-made breath test may sense COVID-19 within minutes

Although other such breath-based Covid-19 tests have been designed around the world, New Zealand researchers say their solution could be as accurate as current lab sampling. A Kiwi-designed breath test is believed to be able to detect Covid-19 in as little as five minutes.

Last year, a team was created with expertise in sensing measurements, biochemical analysis and making the Sars-Cov-2 virus’ target protein. The result was a proof-of-principle for a new test that could dramatically decrease turn-around times for testing and increase the volume of tests that can be performed.

Now, the work led by researchers from several universities in the country has been described in a just-published study. Developers say they established a new approach to detecting Covid-19 viral proteins that is sensitive and accurate enough to directly detect coronavirus particles at biologically relevant levels, specifically in-breath or saliva samples.

The developers said that unlike other proposed Covid breath-testing technologies, this test directly detects the Covid spike protein antigen and so is expected to be as accurate as the gold standard lab-based approach. The research was motivated and made possible by the pandemic, as it allowed resource that would have been allocated elsewhere to be directed to the study, after the national lockdown in March and April.

The brainstorming started on how they could adapt existing biomolecular sensing approaches to detecting Covid. The key insight for them is that you need a ‘recognition element’ that specifically and selectively binds to part of the virus – in their case, the protein spike. The first thing they tried was part of the ACE2 receptor to which the virus is known to bind but it was too hard to make enough of it. They then discovered a paper in the literature about non-helical DNA sequences that were evolved to bind to the spiked protein, and then built them into a range of different sensing systems and tested how well they worked.

If developed and commercialised, the developers said that New Zealand could have “near-immediate point of use” testing. They imagine having these devices at all border facilities, such as airports, ports, and MIQ facilities. The developers said that they will continue developing this as a ‘platform technology’ for other sensing applications, for example, rapid detection of other pathogens or environmental pollutants. In the future, if other pathogens emerge, they find the technology beneficial to be able to use what they have learned to roll out real-time sensors and diagnostics a lot more quickly, they added.

Also, it has been reported recently that a New Zealand based AI company, has also created a personal early warning indicator for viral infection, including Coronavirus. The system overcomes what is arguably the health sector’s greatest obstacle – viral spread by asymptomatic people who do not know they are infectious. By developing personal baselines of biometric data from smartphones and other wearables, the system detects changes to those individual baselines that fit Covid-19 patterns – changes that occur as the body begins fighting a viral infection.

Accordingly, reports say that New Zealand’s digital future is happening now, thanks to Covid-19, The country continues to accelerate its digital transformation and at the same time, local tech firms are stimulating an environment where tech provides both economic and social benefits for all Kiwis, as well as opportunities for the country to make a difference and be more relevant to the rest of the world.

Tech firms say as the world continues to respond to Covid-19, New Zealand can take advantage of being one of the most digital countries in the world. The country’s large collaborative tech ecosystem is providing the foundation for a more productive, sustainable, and inclusive economy and society.

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