Is it Omicron or Delta? CoVarScan, the new COVID-19 test, that detects all variants within hours

CoVarScan, devised at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in US, displayed a 96 per cent sensitivity and 99 per cent specificity in the testing phase

Image used for representational purposes. AFP

The world is still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic and since its outbreak in early 2020, the virus has mutated several times over, causing a surge in cases.

India is currently witnessing a rise in infections; on Wednesday, it reported 16,159 new COVID cases — 23.48 per cent higher than Tuesday’s tally — and 28 deaths. Some medical experts attribute the highly transmissible Omicron sub-variant BA.5 to be the cause of the rise in cases in India.

As the fight against coronavirus continues and the demand to know which variant is a person infected with, scientists and researchers at University of Texas Medical Centre have developed a new COVID-19 test kit that can detect all  variants of the virus quickly and accurately. The results of the test, called CoVarScan, were recently published in the Clinical Chemistry journal.

Researchers also noted that the test is as accurate as any other test that is used to diagnose coronavirus.

Although other test kits like RT-PCR and rapid antigen work efficiently to detect infections, a common drawback in these testing methods is that they can’t reveal the variant a person is infected with.

According to a Times of India report, some researchers worry that the existing testing methods are not always accurate in detecting some variants.

Let’s take a closer look at the test that can detect all variants in no time.

What is CoVarScan?

The test identifies the signature of eight hotspots on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It can differentiate between Delta, Omicron, Lambda and Mu variants of COVID-19 within hours.

Other tests like RT-PCR and rapid antigen only detect a fragment of the virus, which are generally found on its surface. Unlike CoVarScan, they don’t identify the variant of COVID but can only tell if a person is COVID positive or not.

How does the new test work?

The CoVarScan test detects small mutations where the sequence of Ribonucleic acid (RNA) varies and measures the length of repetitive genetic regions that tend to grow and shrink as the virus evolves.

The test relies on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to copy and measure the RNA on the eight regions of SARS-CoV-2.

The research found that the method had 96 per cent sensitivity and 99 per cent specificity as opposed to whole genome sequencing.

Jeffrey SoRelle, an assistant professor at University of Texas and senior author of the study said, “Using this test, we can determine very quickly what variants are in the community and if a new variant is emerging.”

He further added that the test can determine what variants are popular in the community and if a new variant is emerging.

Test ran on 4,000 patients

Over 4,000 patients have undergone the new CoVarScan test. According to a report on The Hindu, Dr SoRelle’s team collected nasal swab samples from COVID infected patients — both with symptoms and without symptoms.

The results of these tests which were validated with the whole genome sequencing were used by doctors to treat some critically ill patients.

The test differentiated Delta, Mu, Lambda and Omicron variants of COVID, including the BA.2 sub-version of Omicron.

How well is the test performing?

Dr SoRelle said that the test is performing very well despite the critique that this kind of test requires frequent adjustments to new variants. However, he said that CoVarScan hasn’t required any adjustment in more than a year.

“In the future, if we did need to adjust it, we could easily add as many as 20 to 30 additional hotspots to the test,” he added.

Dr SoRelle hopes to commercialise the test and has a pending patent application based on his work. 

With inputs from agencies

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