UConn researcher working to develop accurate, cheap at home COVID-19 test

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Free walk-up COVID-19 testing in Storrs Center on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 in the town of Mansfield.

Name: Dylan Champagne 

University of Connecticut Associate Professor Changchun Liu, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is working to make his at home COVID-19 test reliable and cheap to consumers. 

Currently if someone takes a COVID-19 test, it is either a rapid test or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. A rapid test offers the benefit of results within minutes, but is not that reliable. As UConn Today highlighted, a recent NIH study shows that the popular BinaxNOW at-home rapid test can have an efficiency range of 71%, for those without symptoms to 87% for those with symptoms. Due to this inefficiency, people are recommended to take two tests within multiple days of each other. 

A PCR test on the other hand is much more reliable, but can take days to get results back. A PCR test usually cannot be done at home, as it requires lab analysis to detect COVID-19.  

Liu is working to fix that problem. He hopes to make his COVID-19 test as cheap and quick as a rapid test, while also being as reliable as a PCR test. Liu’s test is as accurate as a PCR test, and can be taken at home with results within 40 minutes. It only requires one test for reliable results. 

“Our pH-EVD device, when one collects either saliva sample or swab sample, the sample is lysed and added to our pH-paper-based extractor,” Liu explained via email. “Then, the piece of pH-paper binding nucleic acid is put in our home-made smart cup. The results are visually read by color change – yellow for positive and green for negative. Unlike most rapid tests (e.g., BinaxNOW) which detect antigen, our device detects nucleic acid of the virus with higher sensitivity and specificity”.  

While it is hard as a biomedical researcher to estimate an exact price, he estimates the material and reagent used cost approximately $3 per test, meaning the retail price of the test would be fairly cheap. 

Besides testing for COVID-19, Liu hopes to expand this quick testing ability to other viruses such as strains of influenza, HIV and high-risk HPV. 

Speaking to UConn Today, Liu noted the future implications of this new technology.   

“I think, in the near future, ideally, infectious disease diagnosis will be done at home and in small clinics,” Liu told UConn Today. “This technology can adapt for home-based COVID-19 diagnosis or other disease diagnosis. If it’s successfully commercialized, I think there’s a really broad market.” 

Liu is currently seeking patents related to his research, and was awarded one last February. UConn is also currently looking for a company to distribute and sell Liu’s technology.  

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