New CRISPR-based COVID-19 Test Can Diagnose Infection in 45 Minutes

April 21, 2020

Scientists have developed an inexpensive, easy-to-use CRISPR-based test that can diagnose COVID-19 infections in less than 1 hour.

Scientists at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Mammoth Biosciences developed an inexpensive, CRISPR-based test that can diagnose coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections in less than 1 hour.  

The novel test, called “SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR,” is detailed in a new paper published April 16, 2020 in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“The introduction and availability of CRISPR technology will accelerate deployment of the next generation of tests to diagnose COVID-19 infection,” said Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF and co-lead developer of the new test, in a UCSF press release.

The new test has not received formal approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, researchers at UCSF are clinically validating it in order to receive FDA emergency use authorization.  

The SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR is one of the first COVID-19 tests to use CRISPR gene-targeting technology, and researchers “programmed” it to focus on 2 target regions in the COVID-19 genome.

The first region is common to all “SARS-like” coronaviruses and the second is unique to SARS-CoV-2. Testing for the presence of COVID-19 in these 2 regions ensures that the new test can distinguish between SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses.

Similar to current COVID-19 diagnostic kits, the SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR detects COVID-19 from samples obtained from respiratory swabs, but it provides a result in just 45 minutes unlike the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique that can take up to 4 hours.

Another advantage of the SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR test is that it can be performed at any lab, using off-the-shelf reagents and common equipment. SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR is easy to interpret as well with dark lines that appear on test strips to indicate the presence of viral genes.

The SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR test is also highly sensitive and can detect the presence of as few as 10 coronaviruses in a microliter of fluid taken from a patient. While PCR-based tests are slightly more sensitive and can detect as few as 3.2 copies per microliter, it is unlikely to have a significant impact in diagnosis as infected patients have higher viral loads.  

Researchers are continuing to modify SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR test kits so that they can be used for field testing at airports, schools, and small clinics.

For more COVID-19 coverage for primary care, visit our COVID-19 Resource Page.

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