Vispi Speaks: Coronavirus Testing Methods Simply Explained.


April 14, 2020

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Vispi Kanga

The news these days is dominated by COVID-19 pandemic. Getting a handle on the disease has required drastic actions by governments and sacrifices by citizens as we try to slow the rate of infection. To fight coronavirus, we need to know who has it, where they are, where they have been and with whom they have had contact with. Hence the need for mass COVID-19 testing.

Currently there are TWO main ways to test for coronavirus. Most are either Molecular or Serological tests.
On April 10th, Apple and Google announced that they are building a coronavirus tracking system into iOS and Android.


Most used test is a nasopharyngeal swab, where a special Q-tip is put up your nose to take a sample. This swab is then sent out to a laboratory that can extract the virus’s RNA. The virus that causes Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, is an RNA virus, which means it uses ribonucleic acid as its genetic material. It requires a process called “reverse transcription (RT), to transcribe its RNA into DNA. Reverse transcription is the process that some other viruses called retroviruses, use to make a DNA copy of their RNA genome. Notable human retroviruses include HIV-1 and HIV-2, the cause of the disease AIDS.

A positive result means that person is currently infected with the virus . These tests are done by public health labs as well as major commercial labs that can conduct large-scale testing.


Serological Tests

These are antibody tests, which essentially detect whether someone’s immune system has reacted to the coronavirus, helping determine whether they have had it regardless of whether they had symptoms. The test detects the body’s immune response to the infection caused by the virus rather than detecting the virus itself.

Serological tests use small amounts of blood, usually from a finger prick, to test whether a person was previously infected with the coronavirus by looking for antibodies.

According to US FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn M.D.- Serological tests can play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 by helping healthcare professionals to identify individuals who have overcome an infection in the past and have developed an immune response. In the future, this may potentially be used to help determine, together with other clinical data, that such individuals are no longer susceptible to infection and can return to work.

Antibodies are created by the human immune system to fight off foreign invaders, like the coronavirus. A positive result does not mean a person is currently infected; it can only tell whether someone was infected in the past.

Only one test has received an emergency use authorization from the FDA., but more than 80 test developers have notified the agency that they have non-authorized tests available for use. However, some firms are falsely claiming that their serological tests are FDA approved or authorized, or falsely claiming that they can diagnose COVID-19. The FDA will take appropriate action against firms making false claims or marketing tests that are not accurate and reliable.

Latest News as of April 10th

Tech giants Google and Apple are working together to create contact tracing technology to help in the fight against COVID-19. Through the joint effort, Google and Apple will be able to notify people via smartphone if they’ve encountered someone with the coronavirus. Users on an opt-in basis will be allowed to share data through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions and approved apps from health organizations. Unlike some methods, Apple and Google’s Bluetooth plan wouldn’t track people’s physical location but would basically pick up the signals of nearby phones at five-minute intervals and store the connections between them in a database. If one person tests positive for the novel coronavirus, they could tell the app they’ve been infected, and it could notify other people whose phones passed within close range in the preceding days.

Both companies have posted on their web site a series of documents and white papers with specifications on how the technology works and how it protects users’ privacy.

As early as mid-May, Apple and Google will initially introduce a pair of iOS and Android APIs. Then in the coming months this technology will be fully functioning.

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