Oxford University has unveiled a new Covid-19 test that is capable of detecting the virus in less than five minutes through artificial intelligence analysis of throat swabs.

Its creators said the technology could be used to provide rapid tests at public venues such as airports.

They said the test is able to distinguish between Sars-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, from negative clinical samples. It is also able to tell it apart from other viruses such as flu and seasonal human coronaviruses, according to a study.

The design team hope to begin manufacture of the test at the start of 2021 and make it widely available by the summer.

Working directly on throat swabs from Covid-19 patients without the need for genome extraction, purification or amplification of the viruses, the method starts with the rapid labelling of virus particles in the sample with short fluorescent DNA strands.

A microscope is then used to collect images of the sample, with each image containing hundreds of fluorescently-labelled viruses. Machine-learning software quickly and automatically identifies the virus present in the sample.

Researchers said this approach exploits the fact that distinct virus types have differences in their fluorescence labelling due to differences in their surface chemistry, size and shape.

The scientists worked with collaborators at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford to validate the test on Covid-19 patient samples which were confirmed by conventional RT-PCR methods.

Professor Achilles Kapanidis, of Oxford’s Department of Physics, said: “Unlike other technologies that detect a delayed antibody response or that require expensive, tedious and time-consuming sample preparation, our method quickly detects intact virus particles, meaning the assay is simple, extremely rapid, and cost-effective.”

The research, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, is published on research site medRxiv.

DPhil student Nicolas Shiaelis, of the University of Oxford, said: “Our test is much faster than other existing diagnostic technologies. Viral diagnosis in less than five minutes can make mass testing a reality, providing a proactive means to control viral outbreaks.”

The research team said the test has currently achieved 90 per cent accuracy but added that they hoped to improve this further. They aim to develop an integrated device that will eventually be used for testing in sites such as businesses, music venues and airports to establish and safeguard Covid-free spaces.

It is hoped to incorporate the company by the end of the year, start product development in early 2021 and have an approved device available within six months of that time.

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