Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have created a low-cost, portable COVID testing kit intended for use in remote, low-resource regions of the world. They describe the approach as a lab-in-a-backpack, and it makes use of a recycled computer hard-drive as a centrifuge. The test assay relies on loop mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) rather than PCR, and costs just $51 to produce. Using a LAMP assay means that the test does not require thermal cycling, unlike PCR, meaning that the required equipment is much simpler.
The pandemic continues, and with the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant many more people will get COVID-19. Testing services have been stretched to their limit in developed countries, but what happens in remote and low-resource regions? In many such places, getting access to a COVID test is very difficult, particularly gold-standard PCR tests which typically require bulky and expensive lab equipment. This makes it next to impossible to track the spread of the virus, and implement basic public health measures to curb transmission.
To address this, researchers are developing low-cost, portable testing options that can still deliver high sensitivity and accuracy. This latest testing technology is based on a LAMP assay, which requires an incubation step at just one high temperature, rather than the repeated temperature cycles required to amplify viral DNA in a conventional PCR assay. This means that the required equipment is less complex, smaller, and cheaper.
Another bonus with the LAMP approach is that it works with saliva samples, rather than the invasive nasal swabs required for PCR. The researchers showed some ingenuity in the inexpensive equipment they used, and deployed recycled computer components to create a small centrifuge with which to perform the LAMP assay.
“We are excited for the potential of this mobile lab to do COVID-19 tests and the possibility to democratize access to inexpensive testing technology. It is made possible by our philosophy of creating low-cost instruments whenever possible from advances in electronics, or existing instruments,” said Stoyan Smoukov one of the developers of the new testing kit. “Reuse is a high value option for energy and materials sustainability, and we are glad that rather than exporting electronics waste to developing countries, we can export ways to empower people and turn waste computer hard drives into a centrifuge. The COVID-19 test is a timely application, but we also believe with this CentriDrive kit people could perform a large array of routine blood and urine tests, providing a centrifuge away from central hospital facilities.”
Study in PLOS One: End-to-end system for rapid and sensitive early-detection of SARS-CoV-2 for resource-poor and field-test environments using a $51 lab-in-a-backpack