Researchers in London have developed a Covid-19 testing lab that fits into a backpack, which they say could offer poorer nations and remote communities a cheap and accessible way of detecting the virus.
In a new study in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, scientists from Queen Mary University of London show that their lab-in-a-backpack approach is as effective as PCR tests at detecting Covid infections.
The cost price of each test is just $3.50 (£2.60), said Stoyan Smoukov, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Queen Mary University of London.
If scaled up, the backpack kits could not only slash the price of commercial testing for travel but could also help poor communities where vaccine rates are low and testing is inaccessible or too expensive.
The unequal distribution of vaccines globally means that many countries will be reliant on Covid-19 testing for some time. But the same regions may lack the "practical and financial ability to conduct an adequate amount of reliable testing," researchers said.
The kit requires a simple saliva sample and uses low-cost hardware, including a centrifuge made from recycled computer hard drives, to get a result.
Known as a LAMP test, the process has a similar sensitivity to a PCR test but does not require temperature cycling, only a single high temperature to amplify virus molecules, allowing it to be performed with only minimal equipment and reagents.
Queen Mary researchers have not patented the invention and hope entrepreneurs or health organisations will use the technique to make Covid-19 testing much more widely available, especially in the developing world, and in settings such as refugee camps and disaster zones.
“Basically it’s like a cake recipe, we will give you the ingredients, we will tell you how to put them together and in what order, how long to bake it and at what temperature. We try to make it as detailed as possible,” said Professor Smoukov.
The testing system can be powered by a rechargeable battery or hooked up to a car battery, providing accessibility in places without electricity supplies.
“It will … provide a viable and inexpensive test kit for regions such as Africa, where innovative solutions are particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Emily Lin, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
Beyond Covid, the device has the potential to test for other diseases, said Smoukov: “If you need any kind of blood or urine test that involves a centrifuge, especially in a remote area, then it’s easy to take this little thing in a backpack and go there, rather than having to transport the patient to a hospital.”