New CRISPR Coronavirus Test Could Be a Pandemic 'Game-Changer'

Cheap accurate testing would enable the safe reopening of the U.S. economy.


The safe reopening of the U.S. economy depends on establishing a robust system of testing, tracing, and self-isolation to quickly contain new outbreaks. Yesterday, researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Ragon Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced what promises to be a big step toward deploying millions of accurate, rapid, and cheap coronavirus tests using CRISPR technology.

The researchers have created molecular tags that latch onto sections of viral genes and emit a signal when their presence is detected. The new STOPCovid test enables the detection of as few as 100 copies of the coronavirus in a sample. "As a result, the STOPCovid test allows for rapid, accurate, and highly sensitive detection of Covid-19 that can be conducted outside clinical laboratory settings," note the researchers. The test initially used standard nasal swab samples, but preliminary data suggest that it will work using much more easily collected saliva samples.

The research team is talking with manufacturers to further simplify and produce the test. The New York Times reports that they estimate that the materials for one test would cost about six dollars now and would fall even further when mass-produced. "The ability to test for Covid-19 at home, or even in pharmacies or places of employment, could be a game-changer for getting people safely back to work and into their communities," said team member Feng Zhang in the press release.

President Trump and his circle of close aides are protected from COVID-19 infection by a moat of rapid coronavirus testing through their access to the Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 assay that can report results in as little as five minutes. The Abbott test is an automated real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology that detects the presence of specific nucleic aides that make up the virus' genome. Currently, samples must be collected and processed by trained health care workers. The company has already shipped 1.4 million tests and is ramping production to 2 million tests per month by June. The wide-scale deployment of much more easily administered  STOPCovid tests would provide moats of protection for the rest of us.