Israeli Researchers Developing Home Test Kit for Coronavirus

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky with her team at the Technion Lab, April 16, 2020.
Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky with her team at the Technion Lab, April 16, 2020.Credit: Rami Shlush
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

Researchers at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology are developing a kit for home testing for the coronavirus, a process they say is simple, quick and cheap – and showing an excellent success rate.

Little more is needed than two test tubes and a container of hot water. The researchers say they have achieved a 99 percent success rate when viral loads are high or moderate and when using swabs taking samples from the nose or throat. In recent days, the test has also been successful when testing saliva.

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Leading this study is Naama Geva-Zatorsky of the Technion’s medical faculty, who said the kit uses materials – provided by an American company – that identify the virus’ genetic material. The innovation is in adapting the method for home use, she said, with results obtained in under an hour.

According to Geva-Zatorsky, the company that extracts the compounds used in the kit promises to be able to quickly fill an order for hundreds of thousands of tests.

“If we get the Health Ministry’s approval, we can distribute this kit widely,” she said, adding that the kits could go to health maintenance organizations and geriatric institutions as well as to homes. And in the future, the method can be used to detect other viruses and pathogens.

The method is being developed in collaboration with Moran Szwarcwort-Cohen, the head of the medical faculty’s virology lab, and Prof. Michal Paul, director of the infectious diseases institute at Rambam Medical Center.

The swab sample is put in the first test tube for 15 minutes. The tube contains an enzyme that weakens the virus, allowing some of its genetic material, RNA, to leak out of its protein envelope.

The test tube is then placed in a thermos of hot water for five minutes to stop the action of the first enzyme. A special stick is then used to transfer some of the material into another test tube, which is filled with red-colored compounds.

This tube contains a mixture of enzymes and other chemicals that increase the amount of virus-derived genetic material. This is done by translating viral RNA into DNA and then copying it into millions of copies.

Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky at her Technion lab, April 16, 2020.Credit: Rami Shlush

“If a sample has coronavirus RNA, the acidity of the sample drops, and within half an hour the color of the test tube changes from red to yellow,” Geva-Zatorsky said. “So you can get an answer on whether someone has the virus with an unaided eye, without needing to extract RNA, and without fancy equipment, robots or machines for measuring DNA. You get results on the spot.”

Geva-Zatorsky said she got the idea for this method from two colleagues in the field, Shai Kaplan and Asaf Rotem, “who checked these materials at home and discovered their potential. They then approached me with the idea of developing a protocol.”

The researchers tested the kit on 250 samples. They are now testing the kit’s effectiveness at lower doses of the virus and say the results have been promising.

The tests were done using a database of samples obtained from infected people; the database was set up by Rambam’s Clinical Research Institute.

“Dozens of COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized here in recent weeks,” says Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef, the head of the research institute. “Samples were taken from them not just for diagnosis and verification, but for this study, which is being done on samples taken throughout the course of the illness. These tests can teach us about the virus – about which too little is known.”

Each sample also has detailed information about the patient’s condition throughout the course of the disease.

According to Dr. Danny Eytan, a senior physician at the hospital and one of the people who set up the database, “This includes underlying illnesses and drugs a patient takes regularly, including all the diagnoses made, lab results and vital signs.”

The database is linked to the hospital’s computers that contain data accumulated over the last 20 years. “This connection creates a very powerful research tool,” Eytan says.

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