Check for COVID with your Phone Camera? It’s being tested at a university lab. The approach is promising and inexpensive, however, it is still in its early phases.
It was wonderful to receive a few free at-home COVID tests from USPS, but what if you could test yourself whenever you wanted, using the camera on your phone? Academic researchers have created a testing procedure that only requires some inexpensive lab equipment and your smartphone, and preliminary findings indicate that it is as accurate as PCR tests.
According to Gizmodo, the method, built by experts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and reported in recent research published in the journal JAMA Network Open, requires less than $100 in ordinary equipment such as a hot plate. Following that, each test costs only $7, potentially making it perfect for isolated communities or individuals who are unable to obtain PCR tests.
The procedure is straightforward: Download Bacticount, a free app created by scientists, and place your phone on the hot plate with the back camera facing down.
You’ll put your saliva in a test kit on a hot plate, add a reactive solution to make viral RNA more visible to your phone’s camera, and then launch the app.
The solution will bind to viral material (both COVID and the flu were tested in the study) and turn bright red, and the app will calculate the amount of viral load in the saliva depending on how rapidly the color reaction occurred.
The heat-and-solution approach used by the UCSB scientists is called Smart-lamp, which stands for smartphone “loop-mediated isothermal amplification.” It’s low-cost and simple to set up, which is ideal for the project’s goal of providing “low-cost, low-tech, yet highly reliable and scalable testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus that is resilient against circulating variations” in low- and middle-income nations.
However, due to the limited sample size of 50 symptomatic and asymptomatic patients in one Southern California area, the procedure still has to be thoroughly tested. In other words, don’t expect to be able to acquire Bacticount-compatible kits and do your own testing anytime soon, especially given the software has only been tested with Samsung Galaxy S9 phone cameras.
Nonetheless, the technology appears to be promising, and the team working on it is working to enhance it. The test’s compatibility with the current Android and iOS operating systems is first on the list, followed by having it cleared for public use.
“We designed the study with Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) standards in mind, and we’re thinking about applying for a EUA for broader public use within the United States,” said Dr. Lucien Barnes, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a co-author of the paper, in an email to CNET. “A EUA could be approved within a few months of filing.”
If the technology is as accurate as early tests indicate, its affordability and scalability could be a valuable asset to testing capabilities in every country as COVID testing proceeds until 2022.