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UW researchers help develop test to detect COVID variants in hours, not weeks

Sep 22, 2021, 7:53 AM | Updated: 7:54 am
washington hospitals, test, variants...
A nurse at a drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing station, set up by the UW Medical Center, holds a bag containing a swab used to take a sample from the nose of a person in their car. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Researchers with the University of Washington are helping to develop a test that can identify different variants of COVID-19 from samples within two hours, instead of the typical two weeks.

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The test uses a simple “dipstick.” When inserted into processed test samples, it can reveal a combination of more than a dozen bands or lines. Each pattern of bands corresponds to a specific variant.

“We can identify more than two dozen mutations on a simple dipstick,” said Dr. Evgeni Sokurenko.

Sokurenko is a microbiology professor with UW School of Medicine. His laboratory, alongside Seattle-based ID Genomics, which Sokurenko founded, is leading the creation of this new method to “fingerprint” all the currently known variants.

Medical personnel can then use a smartphone app to identify which variant they’re looking at. Dr. Sokurenko says the process is simple, but comprehensive.

“It’s a rapid test. We can identify the variant within two hours of the sample being in hand,” he said, adding that “many, many mutations, many, many variants could be identified at the same time.”

The test could even alert scientists to new, emerging variants.

“You actually can understand much faster what variants are emerging. You can detect outbreaks much faster, meaning that you can contain the outbreaks. You can identify the sources, like super spreaders, for example,” Dr. Sokurenko explained.

The process is simple, involves less expensive equipment, and could be distributed to urgent care clinics, emergency rooms, hospitals. Scientists hope the new test will be widely available this winter.

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This rapid test is needed, Dr. Sokurenko says, because the delta variant is already mutating.

“From the analysis of just over 100 patient samples, we found already 13 variants, sub-variants, of delta,” he said.

KIRO Radio’s Heather Bosch contributed to this report.

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UW researchers help develop test to detect COVID variants in hours, not weeks