UCLA's New $10 COVID Test Can Process Tens of Thousands of Results in a Day

Tami Abdollah

Tami Abdollah was dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter.

UCLA's New $10 COVID Test Can Process Tens of Thousands of Results in a Day
Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

The University of California, Los Angeles received U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval Wednesday for a new novel coronavirus testing method that is faster and cheaper than most on the market, allowing for thousands of tests to be processed and their results returned in a day.

The test analyzes the genomic sequencing of samples to identify infected people — including those who are asymptomatic — by having them spit into a tube that then goes directly into a machine.

The test uses saliva without extracting the RNA from it, and so is "accurate enough" in comparison to the traditional polymerase chain reaction — or PCR — tests, which are the existing gold-standard for testing but can take days to process, said Dr. Eleazar Eskin, a computer scientist and geneticist who is chair of the Department of Computational Medicine at UCLA. He was part of the team that developed the new testing technology.

The researchers who developed the method hope to test the entire UCLA population twice a week beginning in a few weeks and already have a proof-of-concept online, Eskin said.

The platform known as "SwabSeq" looks for a piece of the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2, an RNA virus that causes COVID-19. For every sample of saliva received, the researchers add a barcode or "sticker." They then mix the samples together and put them into the genomic sequencing machine. Then, by looking at the barcode or "sticker" of the result, they can identify those samples infected with the novel coronavirus.

At scale, "it costs $10 a test, and we can do tens of thousands of tests at UCLA with a lab of 10 people," Eskin said. The technology leverages decades of advancements in genomic sequencing technology since mapping of the Human Genome Project.

According to a pre-print article on the technology, which has not been peer reviewed, the researchers wrote: "SwabSeq is simple, sensitive, flexible, rapidly scalable, inexpensive enough to test widely and frequently, and can provide a turn around time of 12 to 24 hours."

The traditional PCR tests are far more labor intensive and require extracting the RNA from a patient's sample under a specific safety hood before they can be tested.

"We literally have people spit into a tube and that tube goes directly in the machine," Eskin said. "So it's going to be much more scalable."

The sample goes into a sequencer and then put onto a computer to analyze the data.

SwabSeq was developed as part of a collaboration between UCLA's Department of Human Genetics, the university's new Department of Computational Medicine, UCLA Health and Octant Inc., a startup biotechnology company founded and incubated at UCLA. The group began working on the new method in March, Eskin said.___


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