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This Pinay Helped Develop COVID-19 Mass Testing Tech in Switzerland

This UPLB alumna is helping in fight against COVID-19.
by Clara Rosales
Jul 9, 2020
Photo/s: Pixabay / Belova59

A University of the Philippines-Los Baños alumna is heading a team in Switzerland to develop a faster way to conduct mass testing for COVID-19.

The new breakthrough comes from Catharine Aquino-Fournier—who got her biology degree in 1996 and a genetics degree in 2003—who now leads the team behind an application called HiDRA-seq at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich (FGCZ). The FGCZ is a core facility of the University of Zurich and the Siwss Federal Institute of Technology.

So how does HiDRA-seq work? According to Aquino-Fournier, the application detects the novel coronavirus new technology called Next Generation Seuqencing (NGS). This type of sequencing determines the DNA sequence of an organism’s cell.

Sure, other technology may be able to do that, but NGS can analyze billions of a cell’s DNA fragments in just hours.

Aquino-Fournier said that the HiDRA-seq has some similarities with real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT–PCR), the gold standard in COVID-19 testing.

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The main difference is the output of the machine,

“The difference is that in rRT-PCR, the output is a fluorescent intensity,” she said.

“In our test, the output is COVID-specific sequences. Since we have the sequences, we can determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that we find,” she explained.

The rRT-PCR requires extraction of genetic material, but her application will get it directly from the individual’s saliva, or swab.

Apart from the procuring samples in an easier manner, Aquino-Fournier said that the application could detect where or from whom a person got infected.

FGCZ head Ralph Schlapbach said that this technology was not developed to diagnose patients.

Despite that, it has shown “promising results” and it can be used to improve current diagnostic methods and help make mass testing a reality.

The application can process a whopping 100,000 samples in just one run for just $2 (roughly P99) per sample.

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While it seems like the solution we all want and need, Aquino-Fournier said it’s not perfect: the developed method had a 10% chance of showing you wrong results. She also stressed that the new application would not be replacing the rRT-PCR tests, but serves as support.

The new application tracks the spread of the virus and sees the “evolution of the etiological agent”—something the rRT-PCR cannot do but is a critical element in vaccine development.

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