SINGAPORE – Home-grown biotechnology firm BioAcumen Global has launched Singapore’s first Omicron-specific Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) kit.
The new BioA Omicron Detection Kit is able to detect the Omicron variant specifically, besides prior variants of the coronavirus, The Straits Times learnt on Monday (Dec 6).
This means that a person will receive one of three results: Covid-19 positive and Omicron positive; Covid-19 positive and Omicron negative; or Covid-19 and Omicron negative.
Currently, PCR kits here that are capable of detecting Omicron require an additional gene sequencing step to confirm the specific variant. This takes an additional day.
This test kit’s ability to detect and identify the Omicron variant specifically will speed up the testing process.
PCR test results typically take about several hours to a day to process, after factoring in time taken for swabbing, logistics and the uploading of test results. This does not include the time needed for additional gene sequencing, if necessary.
Some PCR kits, such as those currently in use by medical technology firm Acumen Diagnostics and biotech firm MiRXES, are able to detect both the Delta and the Omicron strains, but to confirm if a positive case has been infected by Omicron, gene sequencing is necessary.
A further advantage of the BioA Omicron test is that it has been freeze-dried, or lyophilised, so it does not require refrigeration, unlike other “wet” PCR test kits.
This has simplified storage and transportation requirements, allowing the kit to be stored at room temperature for up to a year.
Using these freeze-dried Omicron-specific PCR kits is simple. A sample is added to a bead of pre-mixed ingredients, then the mixture is put through the PCR machine. Results will be ready about 90 minutes after the swab is collected.
BioAcumen Global started making freeze-dried kits in May.
The kit has been tested with artificial known sequences of the Omicron spike gene and took about two weeks to produce.
Given the convenience and speed at which these kits can detect Omicron, the company hopes this kit will be employed at places such as the immigration checkpoints.
Mr Jimmy Toh, director of BioAcumen Global, said: “We are looking at ways to cut down the steps and time needed to run this test. This is crucial, especially at the borders where accurate tests need to be done on-site. There is no time to wait on sequencing results to know if a positive sample is infected with Omicron.”
So far, scientists have seen more than 30 mutations on the spike protein of Omicron. Besides these, there is also a six nucleotide deletion not present in other currently circulating variants like the Delta strain. BioAcumen’s Omicron-specific kit specifically detects this particular deletion.
The spike protein is an important part of the virus that allows it to bind to human cells and facilitates infection of the cells.
Currently, the team is able to produce up to 8,000 freeze-dried tests in a day, compared with up to 25,000 a day of the traditional wet version.
A freeze-dried Omicron-specific kit contains 40 individual tests at around $14 per test, while the wet version will cost around $11 per test.
Mass production of the kit has begun, and the team hopes this kit will provide much needed help locally and in the region for the surveillance and control of this new variant, Mr Toh said.
There are plans to export the wet Omicron-specific kits to countries like Indonesia.
As more Omicron cases are being detected globally and scientists believe that it could be more transmissible than the Delta variant, Singapore must expect to detect more cases at its borders and in time to come, and also within the community, the Ministry of Health said on Sunday.
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