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    28 Jun 2021

    Phone screens can be used to accurately detect COVID-19

    Taking a sample from mobile phone screens is as accurate at testing for COVID-19 as antigen lateral flow tests, new research suggests.

    The new screening approach, referred to as Phone Screen Testing (PoST), has been developed by University College London (UCL) researchers at Diagnosis Biotech. By analysing swabs from smartphone screens, as opposed to directly from people, the team found that individuals who tested positive by the regular nasal swabbing PCRs were also positive when samples were taken from phone screens.

    The findings have been published in eLife.

    A low-cost, non-invasive method

    This method detected the COVID-19 virus on the phones of 81% to 100% of contagious people with a high viral load, suggesting it is as accurate as antigen lateral flow tests. As PoST is an environmental test, rather than a clinical test, it is both non-invasive and less expensive that a traditional nasal swabbing PCR.

    This means that, not only is it suitable for rollout in lower-income countries, but it also removes the discomfort of current COVID-19 testing options, potentially increasing uptake of regular testing among the general population. In addition, PoST sampling takes less than a minute and does not require medical personnel, which eases mass adoption in big facilities and large-scale applications.

    Infection control in lower-income countries

    Dr Rodrigo Young, from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, who led the study, said: “Like many, I was very worried about the economic and social impact that the pandemic would leave behind, particularly in lower-income countries. We knew that the only effective way to stop the spreading is to regularly test as many people as possible, but this was not happening because it’s too expensive and uncomfortable.

    “We immediately knew this was something special, as PoST is a method that would not only make COVID-19 mass testing much easier but could also be used to contain outbreaks of new naturally occurring and man-made viruses, to avoid future pandemics.”

    Diagnosis Biotech, a Chilean start-up founded by UCL’s Dr Young, has been performing COVID-19 screenings in companies and schools in Chile to avoid outbreaks and maintain operational continuity, as frequent measurement of all workers or students allows the early identification of asymptomatic people and helps to control the spread of the virus.

    A machine is currently under development by Diagnosis Biotech to build on this research, safely taking a phone for PoST sampling and delivering the results directly via SMS to minimise contact.

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