News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel

News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
Sign In

UCF Researchers Develop an Optical Sensor That Identifies Viruses in Blood Samples in Seconds with 95% Accuracy

New nanotechnology device is significantly faster than typical rapid detection clinical laboratory tests and can be manufactured to identify not just COVID-19 at point of care, but other viruses as well

Researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) announced the development of an optical sensor that uses nanotechnology to identify viruses in blood samples in seconds with an impressive 95% accuracy. This breakthrough underscores the value of continued research into technologies that create novel diagnostic tests which offer increased accuracy, faster speed to answer, and lower cost than currently available clinical laboratory testing methods.

The innovative UCF device uses nanoscale patterns of gold that reflect the signature of a virus from a blood sample. UCF researchers claim the device can determine if an individual has a specific virus with a 95% accuracy rate. Different viruses can be identified by using their DNA sequences to selectively target each virus.

According to a UCF Today article, the University of Central Florida research team’s device closely matches the accuracy of widely-used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Additionally, the UCF device provides nearly instantaneous results and has an accuracy rate that’s a marked improvement over typical rapid antigen detection tests (RADT).

However, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have cautioned that rapid antigen tests could produce inaccurate test results if viral loads are low or test instructions are not followed properly.

The UCF researchers published their findings in the journal Nano Letters, titled, “DNA-Modified Plasmonic Sensor for the Direct Detection of Virus Biomarkers from the Blood.”

Debashis Chanda, PhD
Debashis Chanda, PhD (above), holds up the nanotechnology biosensor he and his team at the University of Central Florida developed that can detect viruses in a blood sample in seconds with 95% accuracy and without the need for pre-preparation of the blood sample. Chanda is professor of physics at the NanoScience Technology Center and the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL) at UCF. Should this detection device prove effective at instantly detecting viruses at the point of care, clinical laboratories worldwide could have a major new tool in the fight against not just COVID-19, but all viral pathogens. (Photo copyright: University of Central Florida.)

Genetic Virus Detection on a Chip

“The sensitive optical sensor, along with the rapid fabrication approach used in this work, promises the translation of this promising technology to any virus detection, including COVID-19 and its mutations, with high degree of specificity and accuracy,” Debashis Chanda, PhD, told UCF Today. Chanda is professor of physics at the NanoScience Technology Center at UCF and one of the authors of the study. “Here, we demonstrated a credible technique which combines PCR-like genetic coding and optics on a chip for accurate virus detection directly from blood.”

The team tested their device using samples of the Dengue virus that causes Dengue fever, a tropical disease spread by mosquitoes. The device can detect viruses directly from blood samples without the need for sample preparation or purification. This feature enables the testing to be timely and precise, which is critical for early detection and treatment of viruses. The chip’s capability also can help reduce the spread of viruses.

No Pre-processing or Sample Preparation Needed for Multi-virus Testing

The scientists confirmed their device’s effectiveness with multiple tests using varying virus concentration levels and solution environments, including environments with the presence of non-target virus biomarkers.

“A vast majority of biosensors demonstrations in the literature utilize buffer solutions as the test matrix to contain the target analyte,” Chanda told UCF Today. “However, these approaches are not practical in real-life applications because complex biological fluids, such as blood, containing the target biomarkers are the main source for sensing and at the same time the main source of protein fouling leading to sensor failure.”

The researchers believe their device can be easily adapted to detect other viruses and are optimistic about the future of the technology.

“Although there have been previous optical biosensing demonstrations in human serum, they still require off-line complex and dedicated sample preparation performed by skilled personnel—a commodity not available in typical point-of-care applications,” said Abraham Vazquez-Guardado, PhD, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University who worked on the study, in the UCS Today article. “This work demonstrated for the first time an integrated device which separated plasma from the blood and detects the target virus without any pre-processing with potential for near future practical usages.”

More research and additional studies are needed to develop the University of Central Florida scientists’ technology and prove its efficacy. However, should the new chip prove viable for point-of-care testing, it would give clinical laboratories and microbiologists an ability to test blood samples without any advanced preparation. Combined with the claims for the device’s remarkable accuracy, that could be a boon not only for COVID-19 testing, but for testing other types of viruses as well.

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

UCF Researchers Develop Rapid, Highly Accurate Test to Detect Viruses like COVID-19

Researchers Develop Rapid, Highly Accurate Virus Detection Test

DNA-Modified Plasmonic Sensor for the Direct Detection of Virus Biomarkers from the Blood

Private Labs in South Africa Voluntarily Agree to Lower Prices for COVID-19 PCR Tests following Investigation by Country’s Competition Commission

In an out-of-court settlement, two commercial clinical laboratory companies also agreed to reduce their prices for rapid antigen tests as well

How clinical laboratory companies were pricing their COVID-19 tests caught the attention of government authorities in South Africa. Government agencies in that country are establishing what they view as fair clinical laboratory pricing for private COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid antigen tests without turning to litigation or fines.

The Competition Commission (Commission) is an organization charged with reviewing and acting on business practices in South Africa. In a December 11, 2021, news release, the Commission said it had reached a “ground-breaking agreement” with two private laboratories—Ampath and Lancet—to reduce their COVID-19 PCR test prices from 850 South African rand (R850) to R500 (from US$54.43 to US$31.97).

As of December 12, a third private laboratory company that also had been investigated, PathCare, had not agreed to the court settlement, Daily Maverick reported.

Also effective are lower prices for rapid antigen tests, the Commission said in a separate December 23 news release.

COVID Test Prices ‘Unfairly Inflated’

The changes in PCR test prices in South Africa followed a formal complaint by the Council for Medical Schemes which alleged the private pathology labs [the term for clinical laboratories in South Africa] were “supplying” COVID-19 PCR tests at “unfairly inflated, exorbitant, and/or unjustifiable” prices, Daily Maverick reported.

Tembinkosi Bonakele

The clinical laboratory companies “exploited consumers by earning excessive profits on essential products or services,” Tembinkosi Bonakele (above), Commissioner of the South Africa Competition Commission, told the Daily Maverick. “It is always encouraging for companies to voluntarily consider reducing prices, especially where the public is detrimentally affected by the prices, as to avoid protracted litigation,” he added. (Photo copyright: Sowetan Live.)

According to the Daily Maverick, as part of the investigation, which began in October 2021, the Commission asked the private clinical laboratory companies for financial statements and costs of COVID-19 testing.

“We did, then, further interrogation in order to strip out what we saw was potentially padding the costing and unrelated costs. And on the basis of that, we came to the figure of R500,” James Hodge, told the Daily Maverick. Hodge is Chief Economist, Economic Research Bureau, and Acting Deputy Commissioner at the Competition Commission South Africa.

 For its part, Lancet, Johannesburg, said in a statement that it “Appreciates the spirit of constructive engagement with the Commission which has resulted in an outcome that best serves the people of South Africa as they confront the fourth COVID wave. We are sensitive to the plight of the public and agree that reducing the COVID-19 PCR price is in best national interest.”

Clinical Laboratory Test Prices: Market Dynamics

So, were the prices too high? In the US, clinical laboratories are reimbursed considerably more by Medicare for COVID-19 testing (about $100), as compared to the South Africa private clinical lab prices.

Also, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said in a statement that effective January 2021 it included in that rate an incentive of $25 to labs that provide results within 48 hours.

Medical laboratories are reimbursed $75 for a high throughput COVID-19 test when results are reported beyond 48 hours, CMS added.

Antigen Tests Prices Also Reduced

The Commission said that during its review of COVID-19 PCR test pricing it received a Department of Health Republic of South Africa complaint about prices for rapid antigen test pricing as well.

After another Commission review, PathCare, Lancet, and Ampath agreed to reduce prices for rapid antigen tests to a maximum of R150 or $9.74 (from a range of R250 to R350 or $16.28 to $22.79), a news release noted.

By comparison, Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test is priced at $23.99, on Abbott’s website as well as online at Walgreens.

“The reduction of COVID-19 rapid antigen test prices will help alleviate the plight of consumers and widen accessibility and affordability of COVID-19 rapid antigen testing, which is a critical part of the initiatives to avoid escalation of the pandemic,” said Bonakele in the news release, which also stated that the Commission would receive financial statements from the three labs every few months.

The Commission also is reviewing a “large retail pharmacy chain’s” rapid antigen prices, which “follows a complaint lodged by the Department of Health (DOH), on December 14 2021, against service providers delivering COVID-19 Rapid Antigen tests in South Africa to consumers,” Cape Town Etc reported. The specific pharmacy chain was not identified.

Data Show COVID Plight in South Africa

More than 21.6 million COVID-19 tests have been offered by healthcare providers in South Africa, and 3.5 million cases were detected, according to the Department of Health, Republic of South Africa.

In January, The New York Times reported:

  • 28% of South Africans are fully vaccinated.
  • 33% of residents have had one vaccine dose.
  • One in 17 people was diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • One in 632 had died from the infection.
  • COVID-19 deaths total 92,830.

Considering those data, one wonders if the South African government acted fast enough on test pricing.

For medical laboratory leaders, it’s important to recognize that not only are lab services in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, business practices and prices also are being monitored by officials in this country.

Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Urgent Media Briefing on the Announcement of a Ground-Breaking Agreement on PCR Test Prices

PathCare Also Agrees to an Immediate Price Reduction of COVID-19 PCR Tests

Big Three Private Pathology Groups Agree to Another Price Reduction

Major Pathology Labs Agree to Lower Price of COVID-19 PCR Tests to R500

Lancet Laboratories Agreement with Competition Commission of South Africa

CMS Changes Medicare Payment to Support Faster COVID-19 Diagnostic Testing

Private Pathology Groups to Reduce COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Test Price to No More than R150

Tracking Coronavirus in South Africa: Latest Case Count

Researchers at Wellcome Sanger Institute Develop New Tool to Analyze Genetic Changes and Role of Cell Division in Human Tissue

Nanorate sequencing allows researchers to identify changes to individual genetic sequencing letters among millions of DNA letters contained in a single cell

Detecting genetic mutations in cells requires genomic sequencing that, until now, has not been accurate enough to spot minute changes in DNA sequences. Many clinical laboratory scientists know this restricted the ability of genetic scientists to identify cancerous mutations early in individual cells.

Now, researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom have developed a new method of genetic sequencing that “makes it possible to more accurately investigate how genetic changes occur in human tissues,” according to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN).

This development suggests a new, more sensitive tool may soon be available for anatomic pathologists to speed evaluation of pre-cancerous and cancerous tissues, thereby achieving earlier detection of disease and clinical intervention.

Called Nanorate Sequencing (NanoSeq for short), the new technology enables researchers to detect genetic changes in any human tissues “with unprecedented accuracy,” according to a news release.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute researchers published their findings in the journal Nature, titled, “Somatic Mutation Landscapes at Single-Molecule Resolution.”

How Somatic Mutations Drive Cancer, Aging, and Other Diseases

NanoSeq enables the detection of new mutations in most human cells—the non-dividing cells—GEN explained, calling Wellcome Sangar Institute’s new technology a “breakthrough” in the use of duplex sequencing.

Until now, genomic sequencing has not been “accurate enough” for this level of detection, Sanger stated in the news release. Thus, there was little opportunity to enhance exploration of new mutations in the majority of human cells.

Further, the findings of the Sanger study suggest that cell division may not be the primary cause of somatic mutations (changes in the DNA sequence of a biological cell).

In their paper, the researchers discussed the importance of somatic mutations. “Somatic mutations drive the development of cancer and may contribute to aging and other diseases. Despite their importance, the difficulty of detecting mutations that are only present in single cells or small clones has limited our knowledge of somatic mutagenesis to a minority of tissues.

“Here, to overcome these limitations, we developed Nanorate Sequencing (NanoSeq), a duplex sequencing protocol with error rates of less than five errors per billion base pairs in single DNA molecules from cell populations. This rate is two orders of magnitude lower than typical somatic mutation loads, enabling the study of somatic mutations in any tissue independently of clonality,” the researchers wrote in Nature.

Refining Duplex Sequencing and Improving PCR Testing

In their study, Sanger researchers assessed duplex sequencing and found errors concentrated at DNA fragment ends. To them, this suggested “flaws” in preparation for DNA sequencing.

Duplex sequencing is an established technique “which sequences both strands of a DNA molecule to remove sequencing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) errors,” explained a Science Advisory Board article.

Robert Osborne, PhD

“Detecting somatic mutations that are only present in one or a few cells is incredibly technically challenging. You have to find a single letter change among tens of millions of DNA letters and previous sequencing methods were simply not accurate enough,” said Robert Osborne, PhD (above), former Principal Staff Scientist at Sanger who led development of NanoSeq, in the news release. Osborne is now COO of Biofidelity, a cancer diagnostics developer in Cambridge, United Kingdom. This research may eventually give clinical laboratories and surgical pathologists useful new tools that enable earlier, more accurate diagnosis of cancer. (Photo copyright: Cambridge Independent.)

Re-evaluating Mutagenesis and Cell Division with NanoSeq

It took the Sanger researchers four years to create NanoSeq. They “carefully refined” duplex sequencing methods using more specific enzymes to aid DNA cutting and bioinformatics analysis, Clinical OMICS noted.

Then, they put NanoSeq’s sensitivity to the test. They wanted to know if its low error rate meant that NanoSeq could enable study of somatic mutations in any tissue. This would be important, they noted, because genetic mutations naturally occur in cells in a range of 15 to 40 mutations per year with some changes leading to cancer.

The scientists compared the rate and pattern of mutation in both stem cells (renewing cells supplying non-dividing cells) and non-dividing cells (the majority of cells) in blood, colon, brain, and muscle tissues.

The Sanger study found:

  • Mutations in slowly dividing stem cells are on track with progenitor cells, which are more rapidly dividing cells.
  • Cell division may not be the “dominant process causing mutations in blood cells.”
  • Analysis of non-dividing neurons and rarely-dividing muscle cells found “mutations accumulate throughout life in cells without cell division and at a similar pace” to blood cells.

“It is often assumed that cell division is the main factor in the occurrence of somatic mutations, with a greater number of divisions creating a greater number of mutations. But our analysis found that blood cells that had divided many times more than others featured the same rates and patterns of mutation. This changes how we think about mutagenesis and suggests that other biological mechanisms besides cell divisions are key,” said Federico Abascal, PhD, First Author and Sanger Postdoctoral Fellow, in the news release.

Using NanoSeq to Scale Up Somatic Mutation Analyses

“NanoSeq will also make it easier, cheaper, and less invasive to study somatic mutation on a much larger scale. Rather than analyzing biopsies from small numbers of patients and only being able to look at stem cells or tumor tissue, now we can study samples from hundreds of patients and observe somatic mutations in any tissue,” said Inigo Martincorena, PhD, Senior Author and Sanger Group Leader, in the news release.

More research is needed before NanoSeq finds its way to diagnosing cancer by anatomic pathology groups. Still, for diagnostics professionals and clinical laboratory leaders, NanoSeq is an interesting development. It appears to be a way for scientists to see genetic changes in single cells and mutations in a handful of cells that evolve into cancerous tumors, as compared to those that do not.

The Sanger scientists plan to pursue larger follow-up NanoSeq studies.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

NANOSEQ: Nanorate Sequencing, Ultra-Accurate Detection of Somatic Mutations

Major Advance Enables Study of Genetic Mutations in Any Tissue

NanoSeq Technique Improved to Detect New Non-Dividing Cell Mutations

Somatic Mutation Landscape at Single-Molecule Resolution

New Method Allows for Study of Genetic Changes in Individual DNA Molecules

Sanger Institute Improves NanoSeq Method to Detect New Mutations in Non-Dividing Cells

Wellcome Sanger Institute’s NanoSeq Sequencing Breakthrough Enables Study of DNA Mutations from Any Human Tissue

McMaster University Researchers Develop Bioinformatics ‘Shortcut’ That Speeds Detection and Identification of Pathogens, including Sepsis, SARS-CoV-2, Others

Molecular probes designed to spot minute amounts of pathogens in biological samples may aid clinical laboratories’ speed-to-answer

Driven to find a better way to isolate minute samples of pathogens from among high-volumes of other biological organisms, researchers at Canada’s McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have unveiled a bioinformatics algorithm which they claim shortens time-to-answer and speeds diagnosis of deadly diseases.

Two disease pathogens the researchers specifically targeted in their study are responsible for sepsis and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Clinical laboratories would welcome a technology which both shortens time-to-answer and improves diagnostic accuracy, particularly for pathogens such as sepsis and SARS-CoV-2.

Their design of molecular probes that target the genomic sequences of specific pathogens can enable diagnosticians and clinical laboratories to spot extremely small amounts of viral and bacterial pathogens in patients’ biological samples, as well as in the environment and wildlife.

“There are thousands of bacterial pathogens and being able to determine which one is present in a patient’s blood sample could lead to the correct treatment faster when time is very important,” Zachery Dickson, a lead author of the study, told Brighter World. Dickson is a bioinformatics PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at McMaster University. “The probe makes identification much faster, meaning we could potentially save people who might otherwise die,” he added.

Sepsis is a life-threatening response to infection that leads to organ failure, tissue damage, and death in hospitals worldwide. According to Sepsis Alliance, about 30% of people diagnosed with severe sepsis will die without quick and proper treatment. Thus, a “shortcut” to identifying sepsis in its early stages may well save many lives, the McMaster researchers noted.

And COVID-19 has killed millions. Such a tool that identifies sepsis and SARS-CoV-2 in minute biological samples would be a boon to hospital medical laboratories worldwide.

Hendrik Poinar, PhD

“We currently need faster, cheaper, and more succinct ways to detect pathogens in human and environmental samples that democratize the hunt, and this pipeline does exactly that,” Hendrik Poinar, PhD (above), McMaster Professor of Anthropology and a lead author of the study, told Brighter World. Poinar is Director of the McMaster University Ancient DNA Center. Hospital medical laboratories could help save many lives if sepsis and COVID-19 could be detected earlier. (Graphic copyright: McMaster University.)

Is Bioinformatics ‘Shortcut’ Faster than PCR Testing?

The National Human Genome Research Institute defines a “probe” in genetics as a “single-stranded sequence of DNA or RNA used to search for its complementary sequences in a sample genome.”

The McMaster scientists call their unique probe design process, HUBDesign, or Hierarchical Unique Bait Design. “HUB is a bioinformatics pipeline that designs probes for targeted DNA capture,” according to their paper published in the journal Cell Reports Methods, titled, “Probe Design for Simultaneous, Targeted Capture of Diverse Metagenomic Targets.”

The researchers say their probes enable a shortcut to detection—even in an infection’s early stages—by “targeting, isolating, and identifying the DNA sequences specifically and simultaneously.”

The probes’ design makes possible simultaneous targeted capture of diverse metagenomics targets, Biocompare explained.

But is it faster than PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing?

The McMaster scientists were motivated by the “challenges of low signal, high background, and uncertain targets that plague many metagenomic sequencing efforts,” they noted in their paper.

They pointed to challenges posed by PCR testing, a popular technique used for detection of sepsis pathogens as well as, more recently, for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19.

“The (PCR) technique relies on primers that bind to nucleic acid sequences specific to an organism or group of organisms. Although capable of sensitive, rapid detection and quantification of a particular target, PCR is limited when multiple loci are targeted by primers,” the researchers wrote in Cell Reports Methods.

According to LabMedica, “A wide array of metagenomic study efforts are hampered by the same challenge: low concentrations of targets of interest combined with overwhelming amounts of background signal. Although PCR or naive DNA capture can be used when there are a small number of organisms of interest, design challenges become untenable for large numbers of targets.”

Detecting Pathogens Faster, Cheaper, and More Accurately

As part of their study, researchers tested two probe sets:

  • one to target bacterial pathogens linked to sepsis, and
  • another to detect coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2.

They were successful in using the probes to capture a variety of pathogens linked to sepsis and SARS-CoV-2.

“We validated HUBDesign by generating probe sets targeting the breadth of coronavirus diversity, as well as a suite of bacterial pathogens often underlying sepsis. In separate experiments demonstrating significant, simultaneous enrichment, we captured SARS-CoV-2 and HCoV-NL63 [Human coronavirus NL 63] in a human RNA background and seven bacterial strains in human blood. HUBDesign has broad applicability wherever there are multiple organisms of interest,” the researchers wrote in Cell Reports Methods.

The findings also have implications to the environment and wildlife, the researchers noted.

Of course, more research is needed to validate the tool’s usefulness in medical diagnostics. The McMaster University researchers intend to improve HUBDesign’s efficiency but note that probes cannot be designed for unknown targets.

Nevertheless, the advanced application of novel technologies to diagnose of sepsis, which causes 250,000 deaths in the US each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a positive development worth watching.

The McMaster scientists’ discoveries—confirmed by future research and clinical studies—could go a long way toward ending the dire effects of sepsis as well as COVID-19. That would be a welcome development, particularly for hospital-based laboratories.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

DNA Researchers Develop Critical Shortcut to Detect and Identify Known and Emerging Pathogens

Probe Design for Simultaneous, Targeted Capture of Diverse Metagenomic Targets

New Tool Designs Probes for Targeted DNA Capture

Novel Tool Developed to Detect and Identify Pathogens

Hospitals Worldwide are Deploying Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics Systems for Early Detection of Sepsis in a Trend That Could Help Clinical Laboratories Microbiologists

Penn Medicine Informatics Taps Medical Laboratory Data and Three Million Patient Records Over 10 Years to Evaluate Patients’ Sepsis Risk and Head Off Heart Failure

Airlines Are Partnering with Health Companies and Clinical Laboratories to Implement At-Home COVID-19 Testing Prior to Flights

Because air travel volumes are low, experts believe it is timely to develop COVID-19 testing systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges on, several international airlines now require customers to complete at-home COVID-19 testing before they can travel. This is triggering unusual business practices. For example, one airline allows its passengers to use frequent flier miles to purchase mail-in COVID-19 test kits.

Frequent Flyer Miles for COVID-19 Testing

Across the United States, Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of infection, partly thanks to the state’s strict quarantine regulations. In a state, however, that depends on tourism for its economic health, the pandemic has caused serious financial difficulties. In an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus while also encouraging tourism, Hawaiian Airlines now offers “Pre-travel COVID-19 Test Options” on its website.

To be allowed to skip the state’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine before arriving on the islands, flyers can take a pre-travel coronavirus test with the following conditions:

  • The test must be from a state-approved testing provider.
  • The test must be administered no more than 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the final leg to Hawaii.
  • For trans-pacific travel, test results must be received prior to flight departure.

Additionally, the airline accepts frequent flyer miles to pay for mail-in COVID-19 tests. In exchange for 14,000 HawaiianMiles, a passenger receives a test kit in the mail. The kit features a video call during which a healthcare professional guides the consumer on taking a saliva sample. The user then ships the sample to a qualified clinical laboratory. Results are returned electronically within 24 hours of the lab receiving the sample.

Hawaii’s COVID-19 portal states, “The state of Hawaii will ONLY accept Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) from a certified Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) lab test results from Trusted Testing and Travel Partners” that are participating in the state’s pre-travel testing program. Honolulu and Maui are the only two arrival airports allowed. A negative result must have come from a test performed within 72 hours prior to the final leg of the passenger’s trip to Hawaii, according to the portal.

“A negative pre-travel test is an alternative to two weeks in self-isolation for arrivals to the archipelago,” the UK’s Independent reported.

JetBlue and Vault Health Partner to Offer COVID Testing to Airline Passengers

In another instance of an airline getting involved in at-home testing, JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) is partnering with Vault Health to offer at-home testing. The process is similar to the Hawaiian Airlines program. However, rather than purchasing the test with frequent flyer miles, JetBlue offers polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at a discount.

Business Travel News reported that passengers must provide a confirmation code while ordering the $119 test from Vault Health’s webpage. “Vault provides a kit for an at-home saliva test, and users administrate it while on a video chat supervised by Vault to ensure the test is done properly. The user sends it overnight to a clinical laboratory and the results are provided within 72 hours,” Business Travel News stated.

Joanna Geraghty of JetBlue
“We continue to hear from health officials that [COVID-19] testing is incredibly important in the fight against the coronavirus, and we want to make sure our customers have options for testing, especially prior to travel,” said Joanna Geraghty, President and Chief Operating Officer, JetBlue, in a press release. “As more and more regions reopen, many are requiring test results to enter. Now with easier testing options, those safety requirements may not be a deterrent for travel, but rather provide greater public health and peace of mind with little inconvenience.” (Photo copyright: Spectrum News NY1.)

In “Coronavirus Testing Before Flying Could Become the Norm as Airlines Try to Boost Confidence and Woo Travelers,” the Washington Post reported, “There is no common standard, so it has been left to airlines and airports to design their own SARS-CoV-2 testing programs and for travelers to sort out requirements for their particular destination.”

In addition to airlines such as Hawaii Airlines and JetBlue instituting programs for coronavirus testing, some airports are as well. Tampa International Airport, for example, test-piloted a voluntary testing program for all arriving and departing passengers from October 1st to October 31st. The airport partnered with BayCare, a 15-hospital Tampa area healthcare network, to provide both rapid antigen and PCR tests.

“Testing services will be offered on a walk-in basis … seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The pilot will be open to all ticketed passengers who are flying or have flown within three days and can show proof of travel. The PCR COVID-19 test costs $125 and the antigen test costs $57,” a press release stated.

Tampa Airport CEO Joe Lopano told the Washington Post, “This could be—especially if adopted by other airports—another way to instill confidence.”

COVID-19 Testing by Retailers Expanding as Well

Travelers aren’t the only people who need testing. Some employers also are requiring negative tests before employees can return to work.

In “Costco Begins Selling an At-Home Self-Collection COVID-19 Test Kit; One of 12 Kits That Have Received FDA Emergency Use Authorization,” Dark Daily reported on retail giant Costco’s (NASDAQ:COST) response to increased demand for COVID-19 testing by offering direct-to-consumer, at-home test kits to its members. The kits sell at two price points: $129 for a “basic” kit, and $139 for a kit that includes “Video observation for travel.” The more expensive test is accepted by Hawaii for its Trusted Testing Partner Program.

As with all at-home kits, the consumer collects their own specimen and sends it off to a qualified clinical laboratory for processing. AZOVA, a telehealth company, supplies the kits to Costco for resale and provides a smartphone app where customers can check and display the test results.

P23 Labs’ TaqPath SARS-CoV-2 assay is the test being used, which, according to P23, “has a 98% sensitivity and 99% specificity,” Business Insider reported.

When COVID-19 Testing Fails

Of course, coronavirus testing isn’t 100% guaranteed. The Independent reported in November that a passenger on a Dubai to New Zealand flight who had tested negative prior to flying, was, in fact, positive for coronavirus and had infected seven other passengers during the flight. New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research conducted and published a study following the incident, titled, “A Case Study of Extended In-Flight Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 En Route to Aotearoa New Zealand.”

The researchers found that “All seven SARS-CoV-2 genomes were genetically identical, with the exception of a single mutation in one case, and all genomes had five signature mutations seen in only six other genomes from the >155,000 genomes sequenced globally. Four of these six related genome sequences were from Switzerland, the country of origin of the suspected index case.”

They added, “By combining information on disease progression, travel dynamics, and genomic analysis, we conclude that at least four in-flight transmission events of SARS-CoV-2 likely took place.”

At-home test kits for COVID-19 are here to stay. That large businesses in multiple industries are now partnering with COVID-19 test developers and clinical laboratory companies to accomplish testing of customers and employees means independent labs that process coronavirus testing can look forward to increasing COVID-19 testing business.

“We need to be using the time now, when [travel] volumes are relatively low, to test the systems and gain insight on which protocols are most effective,” Mara Aspinall, biomedical diagnostics professor at Arizona State University, President and CEO of the Health Catalysts Group, an investment and advisory firm, and former President/CEO of Ventana Medical Systems (now Roche Tissue Diagnostics), a billion-dollar division of Swiss pharmaceutical and diagnostics manufacturer Roche, told the Washington Post.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

‘Swap Frequent-Flyer Miles for COVID Test’ Says Airline

Negative COVID-19 Test Result Required Prior to Departure to Avoid 14-Day Quarantine in Hawaii. Tests ONLY Accepted from TRUSTED TESTING AND TRAVEL PARTNERS

JetBlue to Give Passengers At-Home Covid-19 Testing Access

JetBlue to Offer At-Home Pre-Travel COVID-19 Tests

JetBlue and Vault Health Partner to Make At-Home COVID-19 Tests More Widely Available to Customers

Coronavirus Testing Before Flying Could Become the Norm as Airlines Try to Boost Confidence and Woo Travelers

TPA Launches First in the Nation COVID-19 Testing for All Departing and Arriving Passengers

Domestic U.S. Travel Advisories

American Airlines Expands At-Home Coronavirus Testing

COVID: Passenger Infected Four Others on Flight After Testing Negative, Report Says

A Case Study of Extended In-Flight Transmission of SARS-Cov-2 En Route to Aotearoa New Zealand

Costco Begins Selling an At-Home Self-Collection COVID-19 Test Kit; One of 12 Kits That Have Received FDA Emergency Use Authorization

;