A series of research projects to improve saliva tests for the detection and diagnosis of Covid-19 that would also allow mass testing of samples at the one time with a quicker turnaround are being funded by the Government.
In an effort to address "immediate and pressing needs of society arising from the pandemic", Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris announced on Thursday investment of €5.5 million in 41 projects – the latest round of third .level research under the Covid-19 Rapid Response Research and Innovation Programme led by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).
The wide range of projects include developing new surveillance techniques in crowded areas, healthcare settings and airports to detect airborne coronavirus; better ways to decontaminate facemasks for reuse and how to reduce facial skin damage from personal protective equipment (PPE). One project aims to develop plastic packaging and film that is resistant to Covid-19.
A number of projects are focussed on smart technology, in one case to provide earlier detection of secondary waves of Covid–19, while another involves developing the ability to monitor Covid-19 patients self-isolating at home by analysing their breathing via smartphone. The software being developed in UCD will automatically signal if a patient needs hospitalisation.
NUI Galway researchers are developing a web-based application that will be updated continually with the most relevant epidemiological and health-economic information available, "to estimate likely effects of proposed public health interventions" and assist decision-making by health experts and government.
Separately, University of Limerick researchers are developing a dashboard of information to help optimise decisions about public health policies, including their potential to reduce transmission in association with their likely economic cost.
APC Microbiome Ireland based in UCC is to explore a less invasive approach to testing by developing techniques to detect the presence of the virus in saliva. That way people could provide samples of saliva at home and send them in for analysis, reducing the personnel and PPE needed for testing, explained Dr John MacSharry. Saliva samples could also be pooled for rapid screening of groups.
Dr Elaine Kenny of TCD is leading a team including director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun developing a testing system using DNA analysis called next generation sequencing. The proposed method, which is being assessed globally, could analyse more than 100,000 samples in a single run using DNA-sequencing equipment available in Trinity and up to 33,000 samples using lower capacity DNA-sequencing equipment available in other labs in Ireland.
Prof Charles Spillane of NUIG Ryan Institute has got funding to develop the ability to do routine mass population testing using a "synthetic biology" toolbox called CRISPR-Cas.
“The research will develop workflows for rapidly testing individual saliva samples as well as pooled samples from groups of people, to enable routine mass weekly testing in households, schools, companies and other group settings,” he said.
Prof Derek O’Keeffe of NUIG is to investigate if Covid-19 has a distinct “acoustic fingerprint” using cough and breath sounds to identify people more likely to have virus to cut down on unnecessary testing of patients.
Prof Michael Gilchrist of UCD School of Engineering is leading a team developing coronavirus-resistant plastic to reduce the risk of infection given Covid-19 has been shown to survive on plastic surfaces for as long as three days.
“This could be an infection risk for people who handle the plastic packaging of foods, including supermarket workers and people putting away their shopping at home,” he said.
Coronavirus-proof plastic could also be used to protect food and as a protective film on frequently touched surfaces such as door handles and tables.
“If we succeed in developing such plastic films, they will be one key piece in the worldwide effort to prevent community transmissions of Covid-19,” he said.
Speaking at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Mr Harris, said: "It is clear this virus is with us for a significant period of time and yet we still have a lot to learn about it. Research, development and innovation will play a significant role in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic."
The programme established by SFI, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Health Research Board and Irish Research Council. It builds on previous investment of €8 million across 17 projects.