Since the time SARS-CoV-2 was first discovered in a 55-year-old resident of Hubei province, China, on 17 November 2019, medical researchers have been working round the clock to find vaccines, medication, a COVID test and general behavioural protocols to fight the spread of the virus.
Dr Vikram Saini, Associate Professor, Laboratory of Infection Biology and Translational Research, Department of Biotechnology, AIIMS New Delhi, said, “Despite a remarkably fast development of vaccines and their success in reducing the severity of infections in several countries, the extremely contagious nature and evolution of immune escape variants of SARS-CoV-2 necessitate the adoption of ‘Test, Track, Treat and Vaccinate’ strategy for controlling transmission of COVID-19 infection.”
The Better India caught up with Dr Saini, who along with his team, has been working on developing the Viral Transport Medium (VTM) for sample collection and transportation that gives much better results of the RT-PCR COVID test than the current VTM used for detecting COVID-19.
“The studies we have conducted show that this VTM helps detect 25 per cent more symptomatic and over 50 per cent more asymptomatic cases as compared to existing VTMs. Accordingly, due to its higher sensitivity in detecting infected patients, we call our VTM as ‘SupraSens’ or SSTM. Besides this, the SSTM can also kill the virus at the time of sample collection and eliminate the need to have a cold chain for its transportation,” claims Dr Saini.
Salient Features of This New VTM:
“Usually when a sample is collected in a VTM for testing, the virus is active. This sample then needs to be transported to a laboratory and can be risky. One has to ensure that the vial does not break or leak while being transported,” explains Dr Saini. Since the sample is live and active it also requires special packaging while being transported and needs to be kept in a cold chain — that means it needs to be kept at a temperature between 2°C to 8°C.
“Furthermore”, adds Dr Saini, “Even the laboratory needs to be equipped with biosafety cabinets and all safety protocols need to be in order for the sample to be tested. These are doable practices in big cities but very difficult to implement in smaller cities and towns across India.” To tackle these issues, Dr Saini says that the new VTM was worked upon.
“This COVID test kills the virus at the time of sample collection itself. Once the sample is collected it will not need a cold temperature to transport either, which significantly brings down the cost and logistics involved in the process. In smaller cities and towns sometimes even access to uninterrupted electricity is not a given and therefore the AIIMS VTM test kit is useful,” says Dr Saini.
In the tests conducted by Dr Saini, he says, “The sample was tested at higher temperatures of 40°C and upwards as well to test its efficacy. Further, samples were tested for their stability for over some time. The kit gave better, consistent and accurate results. Not needing a cold chain, having sample stability for more than a week and being able to kill the virus during the extraction stage were significant achievements.”
Shedding light on field trials that have been conducted with the support and help of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) using this test kit, Dr Saini says, “We collected two samples from the patients — one following the complete approved protocol and cold chain system while the second sample was done using the kit under whatever weather conditions were prevalent at the time. This was done with almost approximately 220 patients and the trials proved that the [detection] sensitivity increased in the samples we collected using the AIIMS VTM kit.”
He goes on, “There was an overall increase of 70 per cent sensitivity [in detection] in the AIIMS VTM test kit. For symptomatic cases, the detection rate improved by 26 per cent and for asymptomatic patients it improved by over 50 per cent.”
Dr Saini has filed for a patent for the kit on behalf of AIIMS in 2020. He adds that the kit is now being put together in the lab. “As of now, it is available at AIIMS with me. Given how a large majority of people in this country reside in smaller towns and villages, the need of the hour is to have more and more people access this [kit] to help prevent the spread of the virus. This kit can be used by government agencies, hospitals, clinics and individuals even in the remotest places and small towns. The cost, when made on a larger scale, can be reduced to less than Rs 12 — that will be a game-changer,” he concludes.
Note: The Better India has not independently verified these claims, and this should not be construed as medical advice.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)