A novel approach to testing for the presence of the virus that causes Covid-19 may lead to tests that are faster, less expensive, and potentially less prone to erroneous results than existing detection methods. Though the work, based on quantum effects, is still theoretical, these detectors could potentially be adapted to detect virtually any virus, the researchers say.

The new approach is described in a paper published Thursday in the journal Nano Letters, by Changhao Li, an MIT doctoral student; Paola Cappellaro, a professor of nuclear science and engineering and of physics; and Rouholla Soleyman and Mohammad Kohandel of the University of Waterloo.

Existing tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus include rapid tests that detect specific viral proteins, and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that take several hours to process. Neither of these tests can quantify the amount of virus present with high accuracy. Even the gold-standard PCR tests might have false-negative rates of more than 25 percent. In contrast, the team’s analysis shows the new test could have false negative rates below 1 percent. The test could also be sensitive enough to detect just a few hundred strands of the viral RNA, within just a second.

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