Image of scientist packing swab test into plastic bag

The standard coronavirus test, if available, works well—but can new diagnostics help in this pandemic?

As the United States races to ramp up testing for the pandemic coronavirus using technology based on the tried-and-true polymerase chain reaction (PCR), alternative approaches are beginning to roll out that could make it easier and quicker for people to learn whether they have been infected. Some methods modify the standard PCR test, which amplifies tiny bits of genetic material to enable detection, whereas others sequence the virus directly or use the genome editor CRISPR.

Faster and cheaper tests are coming, says Evan Jones, CEO of OpGen, a rapid diagnostics company in Gaithersburg, Maryland. However, he adds, developing new kinds of tests is “going to take time.” Some of the new tests are coming online now, but others will likely take months to validate and ready for widespread distribution.

“Testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra repeated again and again by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Diagnostic assays that identify active infections in people are vitally important for public health efforts, not just for individuals’ health concerns. Widespread diagnostic testing, along with isolation of the infected, contact tracing, and quarantining of those contacts, seems to have been key in South Korea’s work to suppress virus spread.

In the United States, the slow rollout of coronavirus PCR tests has been widely attributed to a combination of stringent rules aimed at ensuring their reliability and a complex web of companies and health care systems responsible for developing, carrying out, and paying for tests.


CRISPR, Infectious Disease


UC Berkeley



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