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Covid-19 update: 29 October 2020

29 Oct 2020

A round-up of this week's coronavirus-related news and countermeasures from the photonics industry.

Nanotechnology and photonics research hub imec has started developing a new SARS-CoV-2 test. Unlike current approaches using blood, saliva, or a nasopharyngeal swab, the new test will identify SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in a person's exhaled breath.

imec says the solution promises accurate identification of a contagious case in under five minutes. To develop the test, imec is teaming up with neighbor UZ Leuven University Hospital for the solution's clinical validation. By summer 2021, imec intends to test a functional prototype at Brussels Airport.

"While each of the existing tests can provide clues about a current or past infection, none of them can determine to what extent someone can still pass the virus to others," commented Peter Peumans, CTO of Health Technologies at imec. “That is why we have started developing a test that indicates, in less than five minutes, whether someone is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether they have a high probability of being contagious.

"To accomplish this, our solution looks for SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in a person's exhaled breath because research shows that breath particles are the virus's main transmission method," said Peter Peumans, CTO of Health Technologies at imec.

Peter Piot, director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added, "It is now clear that the virus is transmitted pre-symptomatically via exhaled particles. SARS-CoV-2 testing via breath sample coupled with an ultrafast molecular analysis allow for the timely detection of individuals who are most likely to transmit the virus.

Sample collector and analyzer

The new solution comprises sample collector and analysis unit, both of which are being custom developed by imec researchers. Researchers are focusing on the sample collector, which will act as the aerosol (and virus particle) collector and support the solution's high-speed real-time quantitative (RT-q)PCR functionality.

Its silicon microscale PCR cavities make for thousands of impactors that allows us to capture the viral particles, while its powerful RT-qPCR functionality brings down the duration of the PCR effort from 50 to 5 minutes. Importantly as well, the standard silicon technology used to build this chip facilitates mass production at a low cost," explains Peumans.

"Thanks to a grant of 2 million euro provided by the Flemish government, we are off to a flying start," said Luc Van den hove, CEO of imec. "After all, the speed with which we will be able to bring this test to the market will greatly depend on the proper financial support. In anticipation of other investors joining this effort, imec has decided to pre-invest the necessary resources as part of our contribution to the global fight against Covid-19."

Professor Katrien Lagrou, head of the molecular diagnostic lab of UZ Leuven, said, "Not only will we provide extensive clinical support to validate the test, we will also support the development using the PCR diagnostic know-how we have built up over 20 years. For a first SARS-CoV-2 screening of potentially contagious patients or medical staff at hospitals, such a rapid test using exhaled breath will be very valuable.

Apply now: Open Call by INNO4COV-19 to commercialize new products to fight Covid-19

The €6.1 million EU-funded project INNO4COV-19 is a new research call designed to support the commercialization of new products across Europe to combat Covid-19, over the next two years.

Its aim is to fast-track the development of Covid-related products, from medical technologies to surveillance solutions. The project will boost innovation to tackle the new coronavirus, invigorating an industrial sector capable of protecting citizens' safety and well-being.

Since October 1st, the 11-partner consortium led by INL (International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory, has been scoping out efficient and fast solutions that can help in the fight against Covid-19 jointly with the industrial and RTO partners.

INNO4COV-19 is set to assist up to 30 test cases and applications from several areas spanning from medical technologies, environmental surveillance systems, sensors, protection of healthcare workers, as well as AI and data mining.

To achieve this, the organization is awarding half of the budget to support enterprises selected through a set number of open calls during the first year of the project. The first call will open on 2 November 2020 across several platforms. Awardees will receive up to €100,000 each and benefit from the group's technical, regulatory, and business expertise.

Scientists work to find weaknesses in virus

Scientists from the University of Sheffield, UK, are working with almost 200 researchers from around the globe to identify vulnerabilities in three lethal coronaviruses-including SARS-CoV-2 responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic.

The international team of experts from 14 leading institutions has studied SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV to identify commonly hijacked cellular pathways and detect promising targets for broad coronavirus inhibitors with high barriers to resistance. This important research paves the way in identifying a successful treatment for Covid-19.

Using the molecular insights from the study, the researchers also analyzed medical records of approximately 740,000 patients with Covid-19 to examine drugs which are already approved for use and successful in treating other medical conditions and could be deployed rapidly to help the clinical outcomes of these patients. The findings, published in Science, demonstrate how molecular information can be translated into real-word implications for the treatment of Covid-19, an approach that can ultimately be applied to other diseases in the future.

Dr. Andrew Peden, from the Sheffield's Department of Biomedical Science and one of the lead authors, said, “The new insights from this groundbreaking study have revealed potential targets that will help develop a first-of-its-kind therapy across all coronaviruses. In Sheffield we were able to bring our broad expertise, as well as the use of our world-class imaging facilities towards a common research goal to desperately find an effective treatment for Covid-19," he said.

Advanced microscopy

Dr. Peden's team used their expertise in cell biology and advanced microscopy to localize every major viral protein encoded by SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV inside human cells. They found that many of the conserved proteins have similar localizations suggesting that they hijack the same cellular processes.

In addition, they also identified that the viral protein Orf9b is localized to mitochondria and alters the levels of Tom70, a key protein which helps cells identify if they have been infected by viruses. This research, in collaboration with work performed in Freiburg, Paris and San Francisco provides a molecular framework which in the longer term will help in the development of new antiviral therapies which are desperately needed to treat Covid-19.

AlluxaMad City Labs, Inc.Iridian Spectral TechnologiesUniverse Kogaku America Inc.Berkeley Nucleonics CorporationHÜBNER PhotonicsSPECTROGON AB
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