swab test
NASAL SWAB: A laser-based COVID-19 test gear unveiled in Abu Dhabi on May 19, 2020, may render nasal swabs obsolete. The biosensor-based test uses blood samples to reveal a signature of COVID-19 infection “within a few seconds”. Image Credit: AFP


  • Scientists around the world have been looking for ways to reduce testing time for COVID-19
  • A laser-based diagnostic system, which produces results "in seconds", was announced on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi
  • The Abu Dhabi test gear, which uses laser technology instead of DNA sequencing, checks the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in blood with "high specificity"
  • Making it widely available could change the dynamics of the global COVID-19 fight, as it could potentially make large-scale tests possible

DUBAI: It takes several hours to diagnose a COVID-19 case.

While the RT-PCR test is reliable, it takes time. “Rapid test” kits, on the other hand, may take minutes and are cheap, but are notoriously unreliable, kicking up loads of dangerous “false negatives”.

With thousands of deaths worldwide, the world is in urgent need of a rapid new test kit that is accurate, sensitive, non-invasive and affordable.

Now, a research team in Abu Dhabi may have nailed it, with a new technology that uses lasers to conduct COVID-19 tests literally in a flash.

Scientists says the technique has the ability to diagnose in real-time with “high specificity” from a low-concentration sample.

What’s this new COVID-19 test gear?

It uses lasers – photonics (the manipulation of light) technology – to detect specific SARS-CoV-2 viruses in a sample.

It is considered a breakthrough in coronavirus testing, possibly allowing for mass-scale screening in a way that’s never been done before, it was announced by the UAE’s official agency WAM on May 19.

As such, is set to change the entire dynamics of contact-tracing and the speed with which workforces can be approached. With the new testing gear, results will be available in seconds, said researchers.

Who developed the technology?

It was developed by the Abu Dhabi-based QuantLase Imaging Lab, the medical-research arm of International Holdings Company (IHC), which is listed in the Abu Dhabi Stock Exchange.


What is the heart of the COVID-19 laser detector?


The equipment uses a CMOS detector. It employs a laser-based Diffractive Phase Interferometry (DPI) technique, based on what is called an “optical-phase modulation”, which allows the system to give a signature of COVID-19 infection relatively quickly.

"It will enable mass-scale screening with results made available in seconds,” said Dr Pramod Kumar, who leads the team of researchers at the lab which has been studying the change in cell structure of the virus-infected blood.

CMOS stands for "complementary metal oxide semiconductor" first invented in 1963 and is widely used in computers. In recent years, advances in CMOS technology have enabled the use of biosensors in various healthcare application.

In medicine, CMOS technology enables low-cost and large-scale integration of transistors and physical sensing materials on tiny chips (typically less than 1 square centimetre), to seamlessly combining the two key functions of biosensors: signal processing and transducing (transfer of genetic material or characteristics from one cell to another).

The Abu Dhabi-based team had been studying changes in cell structure of the virus-infected blood. Through a laser-based DPI (Diffractive Phase Interferometry) technique, based on what is called an “optical-phase modulation”, the system is able to give a signature of COVID-19 infection relatively quickly.

Through a laser-based DPI (Diffractive Phase Interferometry) technique, based on what is called an “optical-phase modulation”, the system is able to give a signature of COVID-19 infection relatively quickly.

How is the SARS-CoV-2 virus detected with this gear?

Blood samples are placed in a set using laser lights and biosensors to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The rapid-test device detects tiny fragments that identify the new coronavirus.

How accurate is it?

“As far as early stage detection is concerned, our DPI technique is capable to detect as soon as the blood cell gets infected. Our aim is to eventually reach the maximum level of accuracy,” explainedDr. Kumar.

How much is the device?

It’s been dubbed as a “low-cost” solution. There’s no final price yet.

For use in hospitals and test centres...where else?

Researchers said the device is suitable for use not only in hospitals and public places like cinemas and shopping malls. With a ‘little hands-on training’, it can be used for in-house testing and monitoring. “We believe it will be a game-changer in tackling the spread of the coronavirus,” he added.

How it works
Image Credit: researchgate.net
A biosensor is an analytical device used for the detection of a chemical substance that combines a biological component with a physico-chemical detector. A biosensor device uses a biological recognition element kept in direct contact with a transducer. The device converts a physical or biological event into a measurable signal. It is composed of a biological sensing element (an enzyme, a tissue, living cells, etc.) that provides selectivity, and a transducer that converts physico-chemical variations into processable signals.


Does this diagnostic system use AI technology?

Yes. Artificial intelligence techniques play a critical role in this solution. Dr Kumar explained that an advanced AI image-analysis model predicts the outcome of each image with precision, speed and scale.

This is especially critical in large-scale testing programs, where a massive number of images needs to be analysed with accuracy and efficiency.

The lab is using G42, a leading AI and Cloud Computing company, to enhance the laser programme.

BIOSENSOR PARTS: A biosensor consists of three parts: (1) the “biomediator” (a biomimic or biologically derived material e.g. tissue, microorganisms, organelles, cell receptors, enzymes, antibodies, nucleic acids, and biological sensitive elements created with genetic engineering); (2) the “transducer” (physico-chemical, optical, piezoelectric, electrochemical, etc.) that transforms the signal resulting from the analyte’s interaction with the biological element into a signal that can be measured and quantified; (3) the associated electronics or signal processor, responsible for a user-friendly way of the results visualisation. Some biosensors require a process of biomediator immobilisation to the sensor surface (metal, polymer or glass and other materials) using physical or chemical techniques. Image Credit: https://bit.ly/2Tk3IXB

Did this testing system undergo trials to validate accuracy?

The machine has produced results with high accuracy in optimal control setup, according to Dr Kumar, who added that large-scale trials were done to test its accuracy.

With the first 1,000 tests, researchers refined the experiment and then applied it to the rest of the trials, according to Dr Kumar.

“The process passed through several stages, and most recently was being trialled on a large scale, in line with current testing procedures.”

Nader Ahmed Al Hammadi, member of the Board of Directors at IHC added:. "IHC is proud to play a role in contributing to the robust efforts made by the UAE leadership in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, especially with regards to testing and raising awareness."

The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 12. Since then, scientists have been working feverishly to develop a solution that would not only reduce the diagnosis time, but one that would enable doctors to concentrate on patients on the basis of need.

When will the laser COVID-19 detector become available?

The lab hopes to be able to roll out the product in the market "in a few months".

What are other scientists doing to speed up COVID-19 testing?

European scientists are also developing lasers to detect coronavirus at the earliest point of infection – from a saliva or nasal swab “in minutes”. Originally developed to look for bacterial infections or cancer biomarkers, the tester is now being “repurposed” to detect infections in patients with a small amount of the virus, according to this article, originally published in Photonics21. It is dubbed rapid, non-invasive “optical biosensor” demonstrator that will detect COVID-19 in humans.

What’s the implication of the Abu Dhabi detector for medical science on COVID-19?

In the global COVID-19 fight, speed in testing is king. It helps identify carriers immediately. As scientists around the world scramble to devise a faster method of COVID-19, the laser-based coronavirus detection gear will reinforce the UAE’s position as a hub of research and innovation.

Abdul Rahman bin Mohammad bin Nasser Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention, expressed hope over the discovery saying: "We are always following innovations related to the early and rapid detection of COVID–19. The government is keen on supporting initiatives that help the healthcare system in the UAE. Health officials have been closely monitoring the progress of trials with QuantLase in order to test this equipment. We are proud to see a technology that works and that will help to protect our people better."

Achieving scientific breakthroughs that focus on the welfare of people is one of the pillars of the National Strategy for Advanced Innovation announced by the UAE government in February 2018.

The UAE’s strategy also calls for collaboration with leading international institutions and companies specialised to push the bounds of innovation.