A team led by AgResearch has been funded to develop a new test for COVID-19
that can detect the presence of the infection earlier than current tests and before a
person has symptoms.

The AgResearch scientists will be joined by colleagues from fellow Crown Research
Institute ESR, and the University of Otago, on the project that focuses on finding a
molecular pattern that signals a human body’s response to the virus causing COVID-19.

The research has the potential for much earlier detection of cases at the border
or in the community, where there is risk of spread before a person knows they are
infected.

The project has received funding of $250,000 from the COVID-19 Innovation
Acceleration Fund, administered by the Ministry of Business Innovation and
Employment (MBIE).

“The current testing methods for COVID-19 are detecting viral RNA, but the virus
needs to grow for a few days until its RNA can be found in the samples taken for the
test,” says AgResearch principal scientist Dr Axel Heiser.

“Instead of viral RNA we want to measure what we call microRNA molecules (miRNAs). The body’s cells make thousands of different miRNAs to control their response to diseases.”

AgResearch scientist Dr Sandeep Gupta adds: “Our intention is to discover the
miRNAs that are made immediately after virus infection and to find a pattern of them
that is specific to the presence of COVID-19. We can then develop a test that detects
this pattern, and therefore tells us the disease is present within hours of infection in
otherwise asymptomatic people”.

“If we can accurately establish the presence, or absence, of infection at an earlier
stage than is currently possible, this test will make targeted contact tracing far more
effective and could help make long quarantine measures unnecessary for people
travelling to New Zealand.”

AgResearch typically focuses on agricultural science but has expertise in detection
of infectious diseases. The method involving detection of patterns relating to
microRNAs has been used successfully by AgResearch scientists to diagnose cattle
infected with Johne’s Disease. Researchers from ESR and the University of Otago
bring highly relevant expertise as it relates to viruses, and specifically the virus
causing COVID-19.

The aim is to develop this diagnostic method firstly in the laboratory, then validate
with samples from COVID-19 patients, and if proven effective, to have a test trialled
and potentially available in a year to 18 months.

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