UW scientists help develop new COVID test

LARAMIE — While people around the the globe are itchy to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind them, a group of University of Wyoming scientists is working to develop a test for the virus that is more accurate and efficient.

The testing system has the potential to streamline on-site testing in places like doctor’s offices, airports and nursing homes and takes only 30 minutes to complete.

Unlike other tests, multiple samples can be tested for the virus at once, making the process more efficient. The test also uses antibody fragments, which are cheaper to produce than the whole antibodies used by some tests now on the market.

Developing the test took a group of six local scientists and students, who worked with colleagues at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Before 2020, some of the researchers were working with detection technology in a more general sense. When the pandemic hit, it became clear it was time to focus on COVID-19.

“It was a really great opportunity for me,” said Moein Mohammadi, a Ph.D. student who worked on the project. “I had other projects before the pandemic. I stopped all of those projects and started working on this (one).”

Mohammadi worked with the guidance of Karen Wawrousek and Patrick Johnson, who are both professors at the university. Each week, the trio would meet with their Irish colleagues, including professor Gerard Wall.

“I think one great thing about the project is how much everyone contributed. We each had our own area of expertise that we brought,” Wawrousek said. “Without the three of us it wouldn’t have worked so well.”

All parts included, the testing equipment is compact enough to fit on a small countertop in a lab nestled in the UW College of Engineering and Applied Science building.

To conduct the test, a researcher adds a saliva sample to a solution with both magnetic particles and detector particles. The sample is then placed on a magnet, where the particles form a small pellet. If the virus is present, the detector particles sink into the pellet along with the magnetic particles and the test is positive.

Testers scan the sample using a handheld device called a Raman spectrometer to detect the positive or negative result.

The Raman spectrometer used for the test was created by Metrohm Raman, a local scientific equipment manufacturer on 2nd Street next to Bond’s Brewing Co. in Laramie.

While it's still not as sensitive as the longer-wait time PCR test, the researchers found that it is 75-130 times more sensitive than the commercially available FlowFlex rapid antigen test.

Despite the efficacy of the test on a small scale, the researchers have a way to go before the test can be used by the public. The team will continue trying to improve the method and then must figure out a way to produce it on a large enough scale to be a candidate for Federal Drug Administration approval, Wawrousek said.

It also will be difficult to determine a cost for the test compared to others until it has been produced on a large, commercial scale.