Filipina leads COVID-19 testing tech in Switzerland

Published July 8, 2020, 4:58 PM

by Gabriela Baron

An alumna of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) is leading the development of a mass testing technology in Switzerland, the state university said.

Catharine Aquino-Fournier, who graduated with a degree in Biology in 1996 and a master’s degree in Genetics in 2003, leads the application called HiDRA-seq at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich (FGCZ), a core facility of the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

HiDRA-seq’s method, according to Aquino-Fournier, is similar to the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR), except it skips the extraction of generic material, which reduces processing time.

“The difference is that [while] in rRT-PCR (real-time reverse polymerase chain reaction), the output is a fluorescent intensity, in our test, the output is COVID-specific sequences. Since we have the sequences, we can determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that we find,” Aquino-Fournier told Radyo DZLB, a campus-based internet radio program of UPLB.

“In the technology we developed, we are trying to skip the part of extracting the genetic material and get it straight from saliva, or gargles, or directly from the swab,” she added.

However, Aquino-Fournier stressed that HiDRA-seq is not meant to replace rRT-PCR.

“Since there is a shortage of materials used for rRT-PCR, we tried to come up with a technique to not affect their supply,” she noted.

Their developed method, she clarified, is not 100 percent accurate, with a 10 percent chance of yielding wrong results, but added that their team is constantly seeking feedback from experts and collaborations opportunities to improve it.

She explained that the technology also has a built-in contact tracing functionality, which can detect where or from whom one got infected.

HiDRA-seq enables the processing of up to 100,000 samples in a single run for about $2 (P99) per sample.

The team published its paper on a preprint server, which gives scientists the information required to establish and adapt the testing system in their own labs.