Federal germ warfare researchers have designed a “game-changer” coronavirus test that quickly identifies carriers of the deadly bug –before they become infectious, according to a new report.
The test, which emerged from a project set up by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aimed at rapid diagnosis of germ or chemical warfare poisoning, was quickly repurposed when the pandemic broke out — and now may be able to detect the virus’ presence as early as 24 hours after infection, The Guardian reported.
That’s several days before a carrier is considered capable of spreading the disease to others, according to the report. It’s also about four days before existing tests can detect COVID-19.
The breakthrough test is expected to be presented to the FDA for emergency use approval within a week.
“The concept fills a diagnostic gap worldwide,” Dr. Brad Ringeisen, the head of Darpa’s biological technologies office, told the Guardian, explaining that it should also fill in testing gaps at later stages of the infection.
With FDA approval, the test has the potential to be “absolutely a game-changer,” he said.
The test uses the same polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines currently employed for existing nasal swab tests, according to Dr. Eric Van Gieson, who repurposed the biological warfare program to instead focus on the new epidemic.
“It’s a simple tweak,” said Van Gieson told The Guardian. “The infrastructure is already there.”
The new approach looks at the body’s response as it fights the coronavirus, rather than simply the virus itself, which is detected by the nasal swab tests.
He said the testing approach, which looks at the body’s response as it fights COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, should produce earlier results than current nose-swab tests that hunt for the virus itself.
“Because the immune response to infection develops immediately after infection, a Covid signature is expected to provide more sensitive Covid infection diagnosis earlier,” Professor Stuart Sealfon, who leads the research team at NYC’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told the outlet.
If emergency approval is granted, the test is expected to be rolled out in the US in the second half of the month.
Approval is not guaranteed, but scientists told the outlet it could make a huge difference as governments move to loosen lockdowns and consider how to control a possible second wave.
“We are all extremely excited,” Van Gieson told the outlet. “We want to roll this test out as quickly as we can, but at the same time share with others who might want to implement in their own countries.”