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  • Kyle Chua

Researchers Develop At-Home COVID Test That Uses Smartphone App To Detect Pathogens

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

The recent spike in COVID-19 cases brought about by the spread of the Omicron variant has strained the testing capacities of some countries in the world. Faced with the hassle of scheduling appointments and long wait times, many have turned to over-the-counter, rapid test kits to confirm whether they have the virus or not.

COVID-19 test kits. Credit: Reuters

A group of researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara wants to make at-home COVID tests even more accessible through a new system that doesn't cost more than US$100 to set up. Called SmaRT-LAMP, the system only needs basic lab equipment and a smartphone to work, as Gizmodo reports. Each test additionally only costs about US$7.

Here’s how it works: You’ll first have to spit on a test kit that’s being heated on a hot plate. Then, you’ll have to mix your saliva with a reactive solution that makes the viral RNA more identifiable to your smartphone’s rear camera. This process is called “Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification,” or LAMP from the system's name.

After that, you’ll have to cover the sample with a cardboard box with an LED light attached to the top. From there, you open the custom app called Bacticount and point your camera at the sample. The app analyses how fast your saliva mixes with the solution via colour reactions. The more pathogens there are, the faster the sample turns red.

An illustration of the SmaRT-LAMP system. Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara

However, the researchers note in their paper, which is published in the journal JAMA Network Open, that the system is still in its initial phase of the study and is far from being ready for mass consumption. But they did observe that the results they obtained from the small sample size of 50 were as accurate as PCR tests.

Also, the app, as of the paper’s publishing, is only compatible with the Samsung Galaxy S9’s cameras, though it can be reworked for other models in the future.

Dr Michael Mann, the lead researcher, told Gizmodo that the system was initially designed to serve rural areas, where testing capacity is limited. But given the overwhelming demand for at-home test kits at present, the system could prove to be a new, cost-efficient solution for the public, especially if it’s as accurate as the researchers say it is.

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