SANTIAGO – Chilean scientists have developed an inexpensive, unpatented coronavirus test that is intended for use by any country in need of that equipment.
The test is low-cost both in terms of production and test processing, which can be carried out using equipment readily available in nearly all epidemiological laboratories worldwide.
It is similar to the genetic PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing currently being used internationally, in which a mucus sample is collected by inserting a swab into the patient’s nose.
But what makes the Chilean test unique is its system for cheap and fast large-scale processing of patient samples.
The machine used to analyze test samples can process around 2,400 of them per day at an accuracy rate of 93 percent; the cost of each test is around $1, with the results available in just three seconds.
The method was developed at the University of Talca, whose main campus is located in the central Chilean region of Maule, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Santiago, while the findings of the team of researchers were published on July 30 in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.
The team leader – Professor Leonardo Santos, head of the University of Talca’s Laboratory of Asymmetric Synthesis – said the key to obtaining fast, low-cost test results is the use of a technology known as MALDI/MS (matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry).
“One achievement was to identify protein biomarkers of the virus in the samples,” he added. “With that, we gained precision in identifying positive patients.”
Santos explained that once he and his team succeeded in detecting the particular coronavirus proteins, it also became possible to detect them in patient tests.
This mass spectrometry-based method requires MALDI-MS equipment, which is standard at most clinical diagnostic laboratories worldwide.
Santos said his team decided not to patent their research, so that any part of the world that needs to rapidly conduct mass testing will be able to do so without delay.
Because of the low cost of the test and the immediate availability of the test-processing equipment, this method should be useful in implementing strategies for the testing and contact tracing of probable, suspected and asymptomatic COVID-19 cases.
Fabiane Manke, a chemist at the Autonomous University of Chile who was a member of the team of four researchers, said the idea is for the test to be used internationally.
“The technique can be used all over the world, especially in Latin America, where sometimes fewer funds are available for purchasing PCR reagents (substances used in chemical analysis) and kits,” she said. “It’s a very inexpensive method that facilitates the analysis of a large amount of samples.”
The impact of the pandemic in the Americas has been greater than in any other part of the world, with 9.8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 367,934 deaths attributed to COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
The United States and Brazil have the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths and cases worldwide, while Chile leads the Americas in number of COVID-19 cases per 1 million people and is ahead of the US and behind only Peru in coronavirus deaths per 1 million people in that region, according to the Worldometer reference website.