A laboratory worker in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
A laboratory worker in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

A new test for Covid-19, which aims to provide results within just five minutes, will be tested in a clinical trial in Johannesburg at the end of June.

If it works (and medicine trials often fail), it could be a game changer, as it would allow for an infected person’s contacts to be traced quickly before they become sick and infect others.

Already the world is scrambling for a Covid-19 test that isn’t lab based and can be used to provide instant results in doctor’s offices or even at airports.

In SA it would be a critical intervention, given the country’s worrying backlog in testing. At the moment it can take more than 10 days for someone who is tested to get their result, by which time they may no longer be infectious but could have infected many others.

This test works by analysing a person’s breath using a handheld device. It was designed by US-based Canary Health Technologies.

Testing will start in Joburg at the end of June, when 150 people, some infected and some not, will be required to breathe into the device for three minutes.

The concept behind the test is that changes in people’s levels of immunity and metabolism may create a unique pattern in their breath. If a person is sick the body releases more free radicals than it can keep in check. These are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons known as volatile organic compounds, which can be detected in the breath.

Nano-sensors will collect the sample, which is then converted into electric signals and analysed to see whether there is a unique pattern.

The Ezintsha group, which is part of the Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute in Joburg, is going to test the device. There are also trials planned for Britain and America. Head of Ezintsha, Prof Francois Venter, says: “We are very excited to partner with Canary on this game-changing technology.” (Venter, a global leader in HIV research, also co-ordinated a petition in support of Medical Research Council head Prof Glenda Gray, who was targeted by the national health department for speaking out against nonscientific elements of the SA lockdown.)

Referring to the Covid-19 trial, Venter explains that many people are searching for such a test that can be used in a doctor’s office or by community workers visiting households. “The holy grail is a real-time, point-of-care device which can capture volatile organic compound biomarkers as indicators. This could revolutionise testing for the disease, and a base can then be built to detect many other illnesses,” he says.

The fact that the test would be noninvasive and that the device could be carried in health-worker’s pockets make it an especially attractive prospect.

An additional benefit would be that the data could be uploaded onto online databases immediately, which would allow for real-time surveillance of the spread of the virus.

The company says initial testing to detect lung cancer in patients by using this method showed promising results, with more trials planned in the US and Asia later this year.

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