Virus-detecting machine could prove to be pandemic 'game changer'

Sucking in air and converting it to liquid allows device to instantly detect Covid-19 variants including Omicron mutation, developers say

A sign in Canada directs a lorry driver to a Covid-19 vaccine facility. A new coronavirus 'sniffing' device could significantly reduce the impact of the current and future pandemics, developers say. Reuters
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Instant detection of an airborne virus is something that scientists have been striving to develop for years as a means to combat pandemics as well as biological weapons attacks.

Now, a British firm that specialises in countering radiological “dirty bombs” and biological warfare believes it has cracked the science with the development of a new “sniffing” device that detects airborne pathogens.

With British and US government investment along with the creation of a new technology for DNA sequencing, engineers have developed a device called Kapscan that quickly senses pathogens — including coronavirus and its mutations.

Kromek, a company based in north-east England, is looking to develop thousands of the machines — which are about the size of a domestic printer — and position them at airports, schools, hospitals, laboratories and government buildings over the next year.

This would allow authorities to know the moment a new, potentially deadly coronavirus mutation, such as Delta or Omicron, enters the UK. It could also help prevent future pandemics, buying scientists time to study new illnesses and develop vaccines.

“Whether it's a terror event or a pandemic, this will very quickly identify pathogens so that we can create actionable intelligence for people to make decisions,” said biological warfare specialist and Cambridge University fellow Hamish de Breton Gordon.

He believes that if the devices had already been in place, they would have picked up the Omicron variant the instant it entered Britain.

“If you have near real time intelligence, you can make very effective decisions, so straightaway, some weeks ago, this mutation would be flagged up and then you could start doing things like closing locations down.”

The machines work by sucking in air and compressing it into liquid that can then be analysed to identify airborne pathogens using DNA sequencing.

The units run automatically and provide near real-time results without the need for a scientist or engineer to be present or for the samples to be sent to a laboratory.

Scientists have been looking for ever-quicker routes to pick up DNA or RNA sequences and create speedier viral tests. Currently, it can take several hours to perform genome sequencing and receive the results.

Indian authorities on patrol ensure people are wearing facemasks. A new device that 'sniffs' viruses could significantly help in the fight against Covid. EPA

“This advance would be amazing because as you would know instantaneously if you're infected or not,” said leading virologist Jennifer Rohn.

“It would be a lot easier to contain any new epidemic, whether that be a new virus or a variant. This would be a game changer.”

At a cost of around £1.5 billion, Kromek believes it could install thousands of machines across the UK and then roll them out globally, providing a global early warning system for current and future pandemics.

The system's utility could also become even more important, with the head of MI6, Richard Moore, saying on Tuesday that synthetic biology and bioterror were the main existential threats in the 21st century.

The technology has become increasingly pertinent, with experts pointing to the reality of the science in the latest James Bond film No Time To Die, in which the DNA of pathogens is manipulated to kill specific people.

“The trouble we have is that there’s no global surveillance system of pathogens that would allow us to pick up something like the James Bond film,” said Mr De Breton Gordon, who is also a consultant for Kromek.

“But that technology now exists. You can have National Early Warning Systems, say, like in the UK and in a perfect world, every country would have one linked to the World Health Organisation, so that you could then make global effective decisions.”

Kromek already supplies radiation-detection devices to police forces in Britain and the US 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 at all 3,000 high-security labs worldwide where some of the deadliest pathogens are researched to instantly detect an escape.

“If the Chinese had shut Wuhan down as soon as they knew it, we would have prevented the 18 million journeys out of Wuhan in that first week in January 2020,” said Mr de Breton Gordon.

While the Covid pandemic had been regarded as a once-in-a-century event, scientists now believe global diseases could come around every decade, making detection important.

“We believe that the continuous monitoring with our system, which can test for a wide spectrum of viruses as well as mutations of Covid-19, has significant potential for protecting against the outbreak of pandemics in the future,” said Kromek chief executive Arnab Basu

The company has already developed a machine the size of a drinks trolley that allows airlines to detect viruses on passengers.

Some Middle East airports that handle millions of passengers are understood to be among a number of locations interested in the device.

“If you're doing a routine airport screening and a person flies and they've got 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 this is very likely to be problematic, so let's stop the person and quarantine them’,” said Prof Rohn, of University College London.

However, she said that with millions of mutations in circulation, there was the chance of someone being pulled aside with a mutation that is not threatening.

Ultimately, scientific developments to quickly diagnose viruses will provide a significant advantage.

“Whatever variant or pandemic is coming next, if we have these systems in place, it will be a game changer because while the UK has amazing expertise for genomic surveillance, the bottleneck is the sample collection,” said Prof Rohn.

“If that could be streamlined, it would be amazing.”

Updated: December 05, 2021, 8:39 AM