Singapore using new COVID-19 test kits on swab samples collected at checkpoints

SINGAPORE — New COVID-19 test kits are being used to detect the coronavirus in swab samples obtained at Singapore’s land, air and sea checkpoints.

The test kits, which were rolled out on Thursday (5 March), promise to deliver results with more than 99 per cent accuracy as well as deliver results within three hours, said the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) in a media release. This is a significantly shorter than the traditional polymerase chain reaction method (PCR) currently used at hospitals to detect the virus.

The new kits are the result of a collaboration between HTX and Veredus Laboratories, which specialises in developing molecular diagnostic solutions.

Scientists from HTX designed the primers for the test kit based on the full COVID-19 genome obtained from the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data. Meanwhile, Veredus provided its patented VereChip technology, which integrates the polymerase chain reaction method (PCR) and micoarray applications.

The result is a test kit that works on a significantly shorter timeframe than the traditional PCR method. In its release, HTX also noted that its scientists took a more advance approach in designing the test kits’ primers, so as to allow detection of the coronavirus even in the event that mutation occurs.

HTX's laboratory at the Pasir Panjang Screening Station can handle up to 200 swab samples per day. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
HTX's laboratory at the Pasir Panjang Scanning Station can handle up to 200 swab samples per day. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

At a media doorstop on Tuesday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said swab tests for COVID-19 would be implemented for all travellers who enter the country exhibiting symptoms of respiratory illnesses or fever. This comes on top of the ongoing temperature checks conducted at the island’s checkpoints.

Travellers who are swabbed will have their samples sent to the Pasir Panjang Scanning Station for testing. While these travellers are then allowed to enter the country, they must stay contactable at all times.

As of 6pm on Thursday, HTX’s Pasir Panjang Lab, which can handle up to 200 samples a day, has only had one swab sent to it. Any positive results from the tests conducted will be immediately reported to the Ministry of Health.

At the lab, ribonucleic acid (RNA) is first extracted from the swab samples. The RNA obtained is then “photocopied” via the PCR process to produce a detectable level of virus load, if any.

The PCR is conducted by loading the sample onto a fingernail-sized VereChip Lab-On-Chip device and the results are read via a microarray built into the chip.

HTX, which was launched in December last year, is also working with Veredus to expand the test kit’s capabilities to include testing for the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.

The agency’s release also noted that the Ministry of Home Affairs has been conducting bio-surveillance via the use of bio-samplers to monitor for influenza and bioterrorism agents at Singapore’s six land and sea checkpoints since 2009.

Filters from the bio-samples are collected twice a day and brought back for analysis at one of the three HTX Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE) laboratories around the island.

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