The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus has changed the way we work, go to school, commute, and live our daily lives. The road back to normalcy, or at least a “new norm,” will not be an easy one, but it begins with rapid, cost-effective, widespread testing that can be used to screen people going back to work to ensure they are not infected. It's critical to test for both the active virus to determine who is sick, and the resulting antibodies to identify who has had the virus and is potentially immune.
According to research from Harvard’s Safra Center, it’s estimated that 2% to 6% of the U.S. population — between five and 20 million people — would need to be tested daily for the virus. That’s a massive undertaking when you consider that, as of mid-September, 89 million tests had been conducted overall.
Current testing is still relatively limited, and the processing is sometimes lengthy. Most testing to detect the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) associated with COVID-19 currently requires test kit samples to be sent to a lab, with transit times of up to 24 hours. Once at the lab, testing for the virus is time-consuming and labor-intensive, sometimes stretching six hours from start to finish. People are left waiting days for the results. Capacity for testing and the necessary supplies are also limited. While some large hospitals have in-house labs to perform these tests, they can only process a fraction of what commercial labs can handle; commercial labs, in turn, involve ever-longer wait times due to increased demand.
What if we could move testing closer to the patient and reduce processing from days or hours to minutes? At-home, in-office, or point-of-care rapid diagnostic tests would allow large swaths of the workforce to know if they are virus-free and okay to go back to work, or students to know if they are okay to return to the classroom. Microfluidics technology could make that happen.
From the lab to the living room
In the simplest of terms, microfluidics is the ability to handle fluids (like fluid collected with a nasal swab or a patient’s cells) at a micro level and with great precision, thus shrinking multiple lab functions down into a small, portable format. Microfluidics technology has great potential for healthcare diagnostics, agriculture, forensics, water testing, and environmental screening. Portability, speed, affordability, and high precision make microfluidics testing ideal for situations like the current pandemic. Small, lightweight molecular testing devices can enable diagnostics at the point-of-care, in the office, or even at home, reducing test-result time from days to minutes.