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COVID-19: ITQB NOVA test shows results to the naked eye

Saliva based testing is low cost and gives results in half an hour

A team of researchers from ITQB NOVA, led by Catarina Pimentel, implemented a test for COVID-19 using saliva, in collaboration with the o Laboratório de Bromatologia e Defesa Biológica (Unidade Militar Laboratorial de Defesa Biológica e Química) and the Hospital das Forças Armadas. The test uses LAMP (Loop-mediated isothermal amplification method) technology with colorimetric detection, yielding results within 30 to 60 minutes. It was initially used to evaluate 177 samples of RNA extracted from nasopharyngeal fluids, analyzed in parallel using RT-PCR.

The test is now being applied directly to saliva samples, eliminating the need to extract genetic material from the virus, with very promising results. Its speed, sensitivity, easy collection, and reduced cost make it particularly suitable for rapid screening of SARS-CoV-2 infection in places such as airports, schools, and retirement homes. This Friday, December 18, took place a first pilot screening of ITQB NOVA volunteers.

Each tested individual collects his or her own saliva, at home, spitting directly into a tube. The test is performed directly on the saliva. A pink result indicates negative, a yellow one positive. It is possible to detect less than 100 copies of the virus per test with a sensitivity that enables the evaluation of the infectivity of the person at the time – information relevant to e.g. allow the entry on airplanes. The complementary extraction of RNA from saliva samples increases the sensitivity of the test.

The ITQB NOVA laboratories involved in this research were also able to produce all the components of the test. This autonomous production allows these tests to be carried out independently from the main supply chains, strongly impacted by the pandemic.

This kind of molecular tests, combined with protective measures, can help control outbreaks in retirement homes and schools at a low cost. "You can test an entire students’ class for a price lower than that of a single conventional RT-PCR" explains Catarina Pimentel. "Its low cost and simplicity allow for frequent testing of communities; these features make up for its lower sensitivity in relation to the RT-PCR tests. Frequent testing of the asymptomatic population is extremely important to contain the pandemic".

Once validated, the test may be subjected to approval by the competent authorities. If successful we will seek partners to make it widely available to society. In recent months, RT-LAMP tests have been validated in other countries to screen for SARS-CoV-2 infection in the asymptomatic population.

This project was developed by the ITQB NOVA researchers Catarina Amaral, Elin Moe, Américo Duarte, Luís Lima, Cristiana Santos, Gonçalo Afonso, Rita Ventura, Mónica Serrano and Catarina Pimentel.

The development of the test takes place within the framework of a project funded by the second edition of the Research4COVID-19 call of the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, the Portuguese funding agency.

You can read the press release, in Portuguese, here.


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