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Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

New CRISPR-Based COVID-19 Test Kit Can Diagnose Infection in Less Than an Hour

By Jason Alvarez | | April 16, 2020

New CRISPR-Based COVID-19 Test Kit Can Diagnose Infection in Less Than an Hour

Transmission electron micrograph of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Image credit: NIAID

Scientists have developed an inexpensive new test that can rapidly diagnose COVID-19 infections, a timely advance that comes as clinicians and public health officials are scrambling to cope with testing backlogs while the number of cases continues to climb.

Developed at UC San Francisco and Mammoth Biosciences, the new test – officially named the “SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR” – is easy to implement and to interpret, and requires no specialized equipment, which is likely to make the test more widely available than the current crop of COVID-19 test kits. Though the new test has yet to receive formal approval for clinical use from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, UCSF researchers are clinically validating the test in an effort to fast-track the approval process through a so-called Emergency Use Authorization.

“The introduction and availability of CRISPR technology will accelerate deployment of the next generation of tests to diagnose COVID-19 infection,” said Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF and co-lead developer of the new test, which is described in a paper published April 16, 2020, in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The new SARS-CoV-2 DETECTR assay is among the first to use CRISPR gene-targeting technology to test for the presence of the novel coronavirus. Since CRISPR can be modified to target any genetic sequence, the test kit’s developers “programmed” it to home in on two target regions in the genome of the novel coronavirus. One of these sequences is common to all “SARS-like” coronaviruses, while the other is unique to SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Testing for the presence of both sequences ensures that the new DETECTR tool can distinguish between SARS-CoV-2  and closely related viruses.