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Are covid-19 self-test kits the game changer we need?

With newer testing methods coming to the fore, covid-19 self-test kits are expected to play a bigger role in allowing a return to normalcy

A scientific officer from Mylab Discovery Solutions demonstrates how to use the CoviSelf covid-19 self-test kit. (Getty)

Last month, Arpita Das, publisher at Yoda Press, tried a Mylab covid-19 self-test kit at home. She was planning to meet friends who had also self-tested themselves to ensure they could meet safely indoors. In a tweet, Das used the #HighlyRecommended with a picture of the test card.

Currently, three covid-19 home test kits have been approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR): CoviSelf ( 250) from Maharashtra-based Mylab, the Panbio COVID-19 test ( 325) from US-based Abbott, and the CoviFind COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test ( 250) from Gujarat-based Meril Diagnostics. A fourth is now in the works: Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Hyderabad, have developed India’s first bio-electronic rapid test kit, Covi-Home.

Also read: Swab tests on your skin could detect covid-19: Lancet study

The three kits currently available are all rapid antigen tests that use nasal swabs to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus and smartphone apps to confirm the final results, in accordance with ICMR guidelines. They also come with instruction leaflets and are easy to use. The Covi-Home kit, which may cost as little as 300 per test, is based on a method known as Oligo-based testing (as good as RT-PCR testing) and works with both oral and nasal swabs. At present, RT-PCR is the gold standard and go-to option for international travel.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, have developed India’s first bio-electronic rapid test kit, Covi-Home.
Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, have developed India’s first bio-electronic rapid test kit, Covi-Home. (Courtesy: IIT Hyderabad)

According to the researchers, Covi-Home can give results in 30 minutes and doesn’t require sophisticated instruments. “This test kit is fundamentally different from any existing devices in use,” says Prof. Shiv Govind Singh, department of electrical engineering at IIT, Hyderabad. Having acquired validation reports from their ICMR partner institute, the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, the team is now looking for manufacturing partners.

Self-test kits, it is believed, have the potential to be game changers. Testing remains key for countries as the pandemic rages. And though India, like other nations, has conducted millions of tests, the need for more tests, speed and accuracy means that self-test kits could play a big role in the days to come. “One of the best ways to break the chain of infection is by (using) a chain of reliable, fast, home-based testing kits,” says Prof. Singh.

In recent months, for instance, Singapore has approved two breathalyser-based tests. One of these, developed by the Singapore-based startup Breathonix, can show results in just up to 60 seconds. According to recent news reports, each household in Singapore will receive these and other such DIY rapid test kits. “We can learn from the world here,” says Hasmukh Rawal, managing director, Mylab Discovery Solutions.

“Many people are returning to their daily activities,” adds Rawal. “Therefore, it becomes all the more critical for people to test themselves regularly to reduce not only their own chance of getting infected but also prevent the spread of covid-19 to their families, co-workers and friends.”

Mylab's CoviSelf kit costs  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>250.
Mylab's CoviSelf kit costs 250. (Courtesy: Mylab)

Mylab didn’t part with sales figures but Rawal says demand has been good. Use cases have shown how handy such kits can be: Mylab’s kits have been used not only by people for inter-state travel but also by the army in remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh. Corporate houses that have reopened their offices or are looking to do so have also ordered these kits.

Covi-Home promises to up the game. “This test kit is based on a nucleotide-test, where the biosensors are inherently field-effect devices,” says Prof. Singh. The biosensors comprise nano-fibres and capture probes specific to the SARS-CoV-2 RNA. These probes are anchored to the nano-fibres via chemisorption, or chemical bonding, he explains on email. “The test kit consists of three distinct sensors, which specifically hybridise to different regions of the target RNA under favourable conditions. This results in changes in the sensor response, which is recorded as an electrical signal, using a dedicated read-out, and a smartphone-based app,” he says.

The electronic signals corresponding to the sensor responses, before and after interaction with the test sample, serve as inputs to a decision-making AI algorithm (included in the software application), which provides an assessment and identifies the test samples as ‘COVID-Negative’ or ‘COVID-Positive’, adds Prof. Singh, who led the research along with Suryasnata Tripathy, Supraja Patta, Swati Mohanty and other students from his team.

Also read: In Singapore, provisional nod to a 60-second covid-19 test

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