Who

One of the major hurdles to combating the COVID-19 pandemic and fully reopening communities across the country is the availability of mass rapid testing. Knowing who is infected would provide valuable insights about the potential spread and threat of the virus for policymakers and citizens alike.

The diagnostic test requires a cellphone camera and a small handheld device. (Photo courtesy Daniel Fletcher)

What

Imagine swabbing your nostrils, putting the swab in a device, and getting a readout on your phone in 15 to 30 minutes that tells you if you are infected with the COVID-19 virus.

Scientists at Gladstone Institutes, University of California Berkeley, and University of California San Francisco developed a diagnostic test that, with the help of a smartphone camera, can provide a positive or negative COVID-19 result in 15 to 30 minutes. The test also gives an estimate of viral load, or the number of virus particles in a sample, which can help doctors monitor the progression of a COVID-19 infection and estimate how contagious a patient might be. In the new test, the CRISPR Cas13 protein is combined with a reporter molecule that becomes fluorescent when cut and then mixed with a patient sample from a nasal swab. The sample is placed in a device that attaches to a smartphone. If the sample contains RNA from SARS-CoV-2, Cas13 will be activated and will cut the reporter molecule, causing the emission of a fluorescent signal. Then, the smartphone camera — essentially converted into a microscope — can detect the fluorescence and report that a swab tested positive for the virus.

Where

University of California, Berkeley; University of California, San Francisco; and Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco

Why

Monitoring the course of a patient's infection could help healthcare professionals estimate the stage of infection and predict, in real time, how long is likely needed for recovery and how long the individual should quarantine. The test would be quick and accurate at the point of need, which is helpful in places with limited access to testing or when frequent, rapid testing is needed.

When

The test could be modified to detect influenza or even human immunodeficiency virus. The team is currently working to package the test into a device that could be made available at clinics and other point-of-care settings and that one day could even be used in the home. The assay could be adapted to a variety of mobile phones, making the technology easily accessible.

Contact Richard Harris, Licensing Specialist, Office of Technology Licensing, UC Berkeley at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 510-643-8577.


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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