A team led by AgResearch has been funded to develop a new test for COVID-19 that can detect the presence of the infection earlier than current tests and before a person has symptoms.

The AgResearch scientists will be joined by colleagues from fellow Crown Research Institute ESR, and the University of Otago, on the project that focuses on finding a molecular pattern that signals a human body’s response to the virus causing COVID-19. The research has the potential for much earlier detection of cases at the border or in the community, where there is risk of spread before a person knows they are infected.

The project has received funding of $250,000 from the COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund, administered by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

AgResearch Principal Scientist Axel Heiser

“The current testing methods for COVID-19 are detecting viral RNA, but the virus needs to grow for a few days until its RNA can be found in the samples taken for the test,” says AgResearch principal scientist Dr Axel Heiser. “Instead of viral RNA we want to measure what we call microRNA molecules (miRNAs). The body’s cells make thousands of different miRNAs to control their response to diseases.”

AgResearch scientist Dr Sandeep Gupta adds: “Our intention is to discover the miRNAs that are made immediately after virus infection and to find a pattern of them that is specific to the presence of COVID-19. We can then develop a test that detects this pattern, and therefore tells us the disease is present within hours of infection in otherwise asymptomatic people”.

“If we can accurately establish the presence, or absence, of infection at an earlier stage than is currently possible, this test will make targeted contact tracing far more effective and could help make long quarantine measures unnecessary for people travelling to New Zealand.”

AgResearch typically focuses on agricultural science but has expertise in detection of infectious diseases. The method involving detection of patterns relating to microRNAs has been used successfully by AgResearch scientists to diagnose cattle infected with Johne’s Disease. Researchers from ESR and the University of Otago bring highly relevant expertise as it relates to viruses, and specifically the virus causing COVID-19.

The aim is to develop this diagnostic method firstly in the laboratory, then validate with samples from COVID-19 patients, and if proven effective, to have a test trialled and potentially available in a year to 18 months.

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