At-home COVID-19 results with the click of a smartphone

Penn researchers have developed a highly-sensitive rapid antigen test that can detect small loads of SARS-CoV-2.

With the return of in-person schooling and the Biden administration’s recently-announced vaccine and testing mandate, fast and reliable COVID-19 testing remains a critical component to controlling the pandemic. At-home antigen tests, which can give results within 15 minutes, are now an attractive and convenient option for the public to quickly find out their COVID-19 status. That said, there is a major risk involved—the tests’ results can often be inaccurate.

Microscopic image of microbubbles.
Microbubbles form as a reaction to the bonding of hydrogen peroxide, platinum nanoparticles, and the SARS-CoV-2 antigen, indicating a test result that is positive for COVID-19. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

“Antigen tests are hugely insensitive to early infections when your viral load is low,” says Ping Wang, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine. “You may test negative and think you’re safe to return to work or school, when in reality, you’re infected and infectious to others.”

To fill the need for rapid and reliable COVID-19 testing, Wang’s lab has developed a rapid antigen test that can detect small loads of SARS-CoV-2 with sensitivity as high as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which is currently considered the gold standard in the diagnostic community.

The technology works by using a smartphone camera to photograph and measure the size and number of miniature, gas-filled bubbles—called microbubbles—in a chemical reaction using a patient’s nasal swab. Wang and her research team validated their test with clinical nasal swabs from 372 patients and found that it was able to identify 97% of positive swabs and 97% of negative swabs when compared to PCR methods. Their results are published in the journal Clinical Chemistry.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.