Measure and control: COVID-19 rapid detection

25 March 2020

A group of researchers led by the Department of Physics at Oxford University is working on a new method that would allow extremely rapid detection of the virus that causes COVID-19 – in as little as one minute.

Led by Dr Nicole Robb and Professor Achillefs Kapanidis, the group’s work to detect infectious diseases caused by viruses was already underway and efforts have intensified to apply the research to the current pandemic. Using influenza as a model virus, the Oxford group showed that virus particles in clinical samples can be labelled and detected in as little as one minute, substantially faster than existing diagnostic tests. The method is general and is currently being further developed for use on the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The new method invented by the Oxford group uses positively charged molecules, like calcium ions, to bind short DNA strands to intact virus particles. When these DNA strands are labelled by bright fluorescent dyes, they result in a facile and rapid labelling of the exterior of the virus particle. Fluorescently-labelled viruses are easily observable by light microscopy, allowing their properties to be characterised in terms of aggregation, morphology and particle size.

Simple, rapid and cost-effective

The new method provides a simple and rapid method for counting whole virus particles, which is particularly important in the production of viral vaccines. The Oxford team has also shown that enveloped viruses (such as SARS-CoV-2) can be detected directly in complex biological samples without the need for purification or amplification of the viruses; such a detection is simple and rapid, and does not require expensive reagents.

Widespread, efficient and early detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus would help significantly in efforts to control the virus; traditional diagnostic approaches for virus detection are often hampered by long waiting times or limited sensitivity and specificity.

‘Rapid functionalization and detection of viruses via a novel Ca2+-mediated virus-DNA interaction’ by NC Robb et al was published Nature Scientific Reports and can be found here: