Instant detection of an airborne virus is something scientists have been striving to develop for years as a means of combating pandemics as well as biological weapons attacks.
Today, a British company specializing in the fight against radiological “dirty bombs” and biological warfare believes it has exploded the science with the development of a new “sniffer” device that detects pathogens suspended in the body. air.
Thanks to investments from the UK and US governments and the creation of new technology for DNA sequencing, engineers have developed a device called Kapscan that quickly detects pathogens, including the coronavirus and its mutations.
Kromek, a company based in the North East of England, is looking to develop thousands of machines – which are roughly the size of a home printer – and position them in airports, schools, hospitals, laboratories and government buildings over the next year.
This would allow authorities to know when a new, potentially fatal coronavirus mutation, such as Delta or Omicron, enters the UK. It could also help prevent future pandemics, giving scientists time to study new diseases and develop vaccines.
“Whether it’s a terrorist event or a pandemic, it will identify pathogens very quickly so that we can create actionable intelligence for people to make decisions,” said Hamish de Breton Gordon, specialist. of Biological Warfare and Fellow of the University of Cambridge.
He believes that if the devices had already been in place, they would have picked up the Omicron variant as soon as it entered Britain.
“If you have near real-time intelligence you can make very efficient decisions, so right away a few weeks ago that mutation would be reported and then you could start doing things like shutting down sites. “
The machines work by sucking air and compressing it into a liquid which can then be analyzed to identify airborne pathogens using DNA sequencing.
The units operate automatically and provide near real-time results without the need for a scientist or engineer to be present or for samples to be sent to a lab.
Scientists have been looking for ever faster ways to retrieve DNA or RNA sequences and create faster viral tests. Currently, genome sequencing and receipt of results can take several hours.
“This breakthrough would be amazing because you would instantly know whether you are infected or not,” said leading virologist Jennifer Rohn.
“It would be much easier to contain any new outbreak, whether it’s a new virus or a variant. It would be a game changer. “
At a cost of around £ 1.5bn, Kromek believes he can install thousands of machines across the UK and then deploy them around the world, providing a global early warning system for current and future pandemics. .
The utility of the system could also become even more important, with MI6 chief Richard Moore saying on Tuesday that synthetic biology and bioterror were the main existential threats of the 21st century.
Technology has become increasingly relevant, with pundits pointing fingers at the reality of science in latest James Bond film No time to die, in which the DNA of pathogens is manipulated to kill specific people.
“The problem we have is that there is no global pathogen surveillance system that would allow us to capture something like the James Bond movie,” said Mr De Breton Gordon, who is also a consultant for Kromek.
“But this technology is there now. You can have national early warning systems, for example like in UK and in a perfect world each country would have one linked to the World Health Organization, so you can then make effective decisions to worldwide.
Kromek is already supplying radiation detection devices to UK and US law enforcement agencies concerned about a “dirty bomb” attack.
With many believing that the Covid-19 strain was the result of a leak from the Wuhan lab in China, the devices could also be installed in the 3,000 high-security labs around the world where some of the deadliest pathogens are sought for. instantly detect a breakout.
“If the Chinese had shut down Wuhan as soon as they knew it, we would have prevented the 18 million trips out of Wuhan during that first week of January 2020,” said M. de Breton Gordon.
While the Covid pandemic had been considered a unique event per century, scientists now believe that global diseases could occur every ten years, which makes detection important.
“We believe that continuous surveillance with our system, which can test a wide range of viruses as well as Covid-19 mutations, has significant potential to protect against the outbreak of pandemics in the future,” said Arnab Basu , Managing Director of Kromek.
The company has already developed a machine the size of a beverage cart that allows airlines to detect viruses on passengers.
Dubai Airport, which handled 86 million passengers in 2019, is said to be among a number of airports interested in the device.
“If you do a routine check at the airport and a person is flying and they have mutations in areas of concern, say X, Y and Z on the spike protein, the authorities can say, ‘OK, we’ve never seen this one before, but on paper it’s very likely to be problematic, so let’s arrest the person and quarantine them, ”said Professor Rohn, University College London.
However, she said that with millions of mutations in circulation, there was a risk that someone would be sidelined with a mutation that is not threatening.
Ultimately, scientific developments to quickly diagnose viruses will provide a significant advantage.
“Whatever variant or pandemic comes, if we have these systems in place it will be a game-changer because while the UK has incredible expertise in genomic surveillance the bottleneck is collecting data. ‘samples,’ said Prof Rohn.
“If it could be streamlined, that would be amazing. “
Updated: December 4, 2021, 06:06 AM