British scientists have developed a rapid coronavirus test they say can spot the disease in less than five minutes.
The Oxford University team behind the device hope it will be ready to be rolled out nationwide in the middle of next year.
It works using a nasal swab that is inserted into a cartridge that scans for antigens, or proteins found on the surface of Covid-19.
The test can also tell the virus apart from other infections such as flu and seasonal human coronaviruses, according to a small study of its efficacy.
Its creators envisage it being used to test people en masse at airports and in offices to keep the economy afloat.
If proven to work on a large scale, the device will be three times faster than current rapid tests being reviewed by the UK Government.
Ministers are in the market for quick antigen tests, which would play a key role in Boris Johnson’s ‘Operation Moonshot’ project to carry out 10million tests a day.
Antigen swabbing is generally considered a less accurate – though much faster – method of testing.
The gold-standard tests detect viral RNA using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
But they require processing with expensive laboratory equipment and chemicals and take days to turnaround a result.
Antigen tests aren’t as sensitive as the PCR versions, which can pick up minuscule amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
But proponents argue that the rapid tests could be a game changer because they can be rolled out in vast numbers and immediately spot those at greatest risk of infecting others.
Oxford University said it hoped to start product development of its test in early 2021 and have an approved device available six months afterwards.
Using throat swabs, the device works by scouring the sample for the presence of viral particles.
It uses machine learning to assess differences in their surface size, shape and chemistry and tell which virus they belong to.
In a small study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, the device was shown to give the right diagnosis up to 98 per cent of the time.
But that is only under optimal conditions. Experts have told MailOnline rapid antigen tests’ true sensitivity is between 80 per cent and 90 per cent in real-world scenarios.
Lead researcher Professor Achilles Kapanidis, at Oxford’s department of physics, said: ‘Unlike other technologies that detect a delayed antibody response or that require expensive, tedious and time-consuming sample preparation, our method quickly detects intact virus particles, meaning the assay is simple, extremely rapid, and cost-effective.’
Dr Nicole Robb, of Warwick Medical School, who co-led the research, added: ‘A significant concern for the upcoming winter months is the unpredictable effects of co-circulation of SARS-CoV-2 with other seasonal respiratory viruses.
‘We have shown that our assay (test) can reliably distinguish between different viruses in clinical samples, a development that offers a crucial advantage in the next phase of the pandemic.’
Although the Oxford platform will only be ready next year, the tests could help manage the pandemic in time for next winter.
Health officials have warned that the world will need to live with coronavirus even if a vaccine is developed because it’s unclear how long immunity will last and rolling out jabs for entire populations year-round will be a logistical nightmare.