A new method to screen for COVID-19 infections could slash the current turnaround time of around 24 to 48 hours to just a few minutes, AgResearch scientists say.

AgResearch is leading the research into this method - with support from fellow Crown Research Institute ESR - which proposes use of specialised machines called mass spectrometers to measure hundreds of molecules in samples of saliva from people being screened for COVID-19.

Funded from the government’s COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund, the work could allow a much faster response to potentially positive cases and shorter wait times for results for people undergoing precautionary quarantine, says AgResearch senior scientist Dr Alastair Ross.

“Another advantage of this new rapid screening test would be simple and frequent monitoring of groups at greater risk of contracting the virus such as those working in quarantine facilities or in hospitals or other essential worker categories,” Dr Ross says.

“We envisage this new method will support the current testing methods used here in New Zealand. Our aim is to determine if this new approach to detecting COVID-19 will be viable within six months from the start of this project.”

Dr Ross says the scientific literature shows that viral infections lead to metabolic changes which can be detected in blood using lab-based mass spectrometers. A new generation of much smaller, more portable mass spectrometers is now available to find the “metabolic fingerprints” from samples within seconds of measurement.

Mass spectrometer machine processing samples.

“In this case we will use mass spectrometry to measure saliva for the presence of metabolic markers related to the virus and the body’s subsequent immune response. Saliva, being near the airways, is close to where the virus causing COVID-19 has most impact, and the samples are easily accessible and not problematic for most people to provide. Having one of these transportable mass spectrometers at a testing site will allow measurement of results within a few minutes of collecting the saliva sample.”

ESR Chief Scientist Dr Brett Cowan says this research will support interim methods that are being employed in New Zealand to detect COVID-19 at the border and protect communities.

“This cutting-edge research project has the potential to become a viable and robust method for saliva testing and will support current testing methods. We’ll be evaluating the results in six months’ time but, in the interim, ESR is working on short-term saliva testing solutions, using overseas technology, to put in place another layer of protection at the border.”

This research is also separate to another AgResearch-led project into testing for COVID-19, in which the scientists are seeking to develop a test that can detect infection much earlier using microRNA molecules as an indicator.

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