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The science behind reliable COVID-19 testing

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The science behind reliable COVID-19 testing
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Futuris looks at what scientists are doing to make sure coronavirus diagnostic tests are efficient and don’t produce false negatives.

Scientists from the Joint Research Centre say they have developed so-called reference material to make sure coronavirus tests don’t incorrectly give a negative result for someone who is actually infected with COVID-19.

Creating test certainty

Based on molecular biology, the main component of this reference material is a synthetic, non infectious part of the virus, that has remained stable during mutation.

"From an analytical point of view, this molecule behaves exactly like the genome of the coronavirus. But it is not infectious, as it is not a complete particle. This allows the molecule to be used for analyses and guarantees that during the analytical process, which is quite complex, everything goes smoothly,” says JRC Biotechnologist and Microbiologist Francesco Gatto.

The innovation not only seeks to give labs and companies producing COVID-19 tests a guarantee that their kit is working properly, it should also eventually harmonise equipment across Europe. The idea is that if a test doesn't spot any reference material, then it won’t detect the virus.

"This positive test enables us to say for certain that everything is under control. That the test works properly. So, if a patient gets a negative result, it will be because the virus is not there, and not because the test did not work,”says JRC Bioanalytical Scientist Philippe Corbisier.

Epidemiological data

Since the very start of the pandemic, researchers at the JRC have also been collecting a large amount of epidemiological, social, economic and environmental data. The goal is to help governments in Europe respond better to the virus by giving each country a picture of its own specific epidemiological circumstances.

Alessandra Zampieri, the Head of Unit for Disaster Risk Management at the Joint Research Centre said: "This information has for instance been used to understand the needs linked to medical equipment, respirators, masks, intensive care units, how many medical posts will be needed in the following weeks, etc. In reality, the problem of data has always been important throughout the pandemic and is even vital today. Before it was important to follow the peak of the outbreak, now it is also crucial to follow how it is evolving, where cases are falling, or to identify new cases. This is still one of the number one priorities in the European Union.”

After studying the spread of the virus, and its potential impact during lockdown, scientists are now focusing on what they call ´'Exit Scenarios' for the post-lockdown phase.

"The cases are under control but they may reescalate, there may be a restart of cases. Now our modelling and our scenario work is geared towards the possible ways that this could play out during the summer, balancing the tourist sector economically versus the public health risks," said Tom de Groeve, the Deputy Head of Unit for Disaster Risk Management, at the JRC.

Researchers say they’re working closely with other institutions on these exit strategies, including the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) in Sweden.