20-second coronavirus screening test piloted at U.K.'s Heathrow airport

Heathrow airport
The Virolens device, developed by iAbra, uses a digital microscope and artificial intelligence-powered software to visually search a mouth swab sample for signs of the novel coronavirus. (Getty Images)

Two British companies are preparing to launch a simple COVID-19 saliva screening test that aims to provide an accurate result within 20 seconds—following its first uses at London’s Heathrow airport, one of the busiest in the world.

The Virolens device, developed by iAbra, uses a digital microscope and artificial intelligence-powered software to visually search a mouth swab sample for signs of the novel coronavirus.

The machine provides a low-cost, repeatable and self-administered method of screening, allowing hundreds of cartridge-based tests to be performed each day, according to iAbra’s manufacturing partner TT Electronics. Validation studies by the University of Bristol have pegged the system’s false-negative rate of 0.2%, alongside a false-positive rate of 3.3%.

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The Virolens device underwent its first rounds of field testing among Heathrow employees, and its developers are now planning full clinical trials to gain certifications for medical use.

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“I have experienced iAbra’s test myself, alongside the PCR test—it is quicker and cheaper, and potentially more accurate,” said Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland Kaye. “We urge the government to fast-track this technology to protect the economy and help save millions of jobs in this country.” 

According to a report from the Financial Times, iAbra said the machine will cost less than $20,000, with cartridge testing kits about “the price of a paperback book.” 

Meanwhile, Heathrow has also tried out two other rapid-result coronavirus tests: Geneme's RT-LAMP nasal swab test, and Mologic’s lateral-flow saliva testing strip. The findings are being shared with the U.K. government as countries and airports look to find the most efficient and user-friendly testing methods for screening passengers.

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