Portable Test Can Quickly Detect COVID-19 and Track Variants

April 1, 2021
Killian Meara

With the small size and portability of NIRVANA, the test could be used for fast virus detection at various locations and could be used to monitor wastewater or streams for the presence of new viruses.

A recent study conducted by investigators from the Salk Institute has discovered that clinicians can diagnose COVID-19 in just a few short minutes, while simultaneously sequencing the virus and collecting information on mutations and variants using a pocket-sized, portable machine. Results from the study were published in the journal Med.

"This is a virus detection and surveillance method that doesn't require an expensive infrastructure like other approaches," Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, co-corresponding author on the study said. "We can accomplish with one portable test the same thing that others are using two or three different tests, with different machines, to do."

The machine, called NIRVANA (nanopore sequencing of isothermal rapid viral amplification for near real-time analysis), was devised last summer when investigators thought of a way to test for COVID-19 in a cheaper and quicker fashion.

For the study, the investigators combined a gene-detection approach called isothermal recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA) with real-time nanopore sequencing. RPA uses proteins instead of temperature to separate DNA strands and copy them. This allows for the copy of longer stretches of DNA and to probe for multiple genes.

The device created uses the RPA technology, can screen 96 samples at once and is small and portable.

Findings from the study demonstrated that in just 15 minutes, the device could report results and could fully analyze all 96 samples in 3 hours. In 70 tested samples, the assay was able to correctly identify a present virus and allowed investigators to narrow down the origin of the strain in positive samples.

"The pandemic has provided two important lessons: first, test widely and quickly, and second, know your variants,” Izpisua Belmonte, who holds the Roger Guillemin Chair at Salk said. “Our NIRVANA method provides a promising solution to these two challenges not only for the current pandemic but also for possible future ones.”