Nuclear scientists in Austria are closing in on coronavirus testing kits that could dramatically lower the cost and time it takes to diagnose people for the disease.
With COVID-19 tests in short supply in many places, some individuals have turned to private laboratories that can genetically detect the pathogen. That process, called reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR, can cost as much as $400 in some private facilities.
But the International Atomic Energy Agency expects it can procure those COVID-19 tests at a cost of as little as 10 euros ($10.83), which can yield a diagnosis within hours, according to a spokesperson, who stressed that labs have been using RT-PCR diagnosis methods for decades. The IAEA’s COVID-19 detection kits are close to being shipped, according to the agency, which didn’t specify where they are being manufactured.
While the IAEA’s individual tests may top out at 15 euros a person, countries will need laboratories to process results. Setting up a new facility from scratch can cost as much as 100,000 euros, according to the agency.
The IAEA’s lab outside Vienna has previously developed kits testing for Ebola, Zika and African Swine Fever. More than 75 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have now asked the agency’s scientists for diagnostic help, up from just 14 nations on March 9. The effort drew an extra $5 million of funding on Tuesday from the U.S. State Department.
The work of IAEA scientists at labs in Seibersdorf, Austria goes beyond nuclear power. They use atomic techniques at the behest of members to improve health care, agricultural yields and combat pests.
The RT-PCR tests they’ve developed initially used radioactive isotope markers to detect the presence of specific genetic material from a virus. Subsequent refining of the method has led to the use of fluorescent markers for screening.
“If you know what is out there ahead of time, you have time to proactively prepare, either by developing vaccines or increasing your capacity for diagnosis and detection,” said IAEA scientists Gerrit Viljoen earlier this month.
The ability to test COVID-19 is seen as a key variable in restricting its spread. Diagnosis has proliferated in some countries like Germany and South Korea, while lagging behind in others including Italy and parts of the U.S.