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UK researchers develop new low-cost, rapid COVID-19 test that could even be used at home

A new type of test developed by UK researchers from the Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey can provide COVID-19 detection in as little as 30 minutes, using hand-held hardware that costs as little as £100 (around $120 USD) with individual swab sample kits that cost around $5 per person. The test is based on existing technology that has been used in the Philippines for testing viral spread in chickens, but it’s been adapted by researchers for use with COVID-19 in humans, and the team is now working on ramping mass production.

This test would obviously need approval by local health regulatory bodies like the FDA before it goes into active use in any specific geography, but the researchers behind the project are “confident it will respond well,” and say they could even make it available for use “within a few weeks.” The hardware itself is battery-operated and connects to a smartphone application to display diagnostic results and works with nasal or throat swabs, without requiring that samples be round-tripped to a lab.

There are other tests already approved for use that use similar methods for on-site testing, including kits and machines from Cepheid and Mesa Biotech. These require expensive dedicated table-top micro-labs, however, which is installed in dedicated healthcare facilities including hospitals. This test from UK scientists has the advantage of running on inexpensive hardware, with testing capabilities for up to six people at once, which can be deployed in doctor’s offices, hospitals and even potentially workplaces and homes for truly widespread, accessible testing.

Some frontline, rapid results tests are already in use in the EU and China, but these are generally serological tests that rely on the presence of antibodies, whereas this group’s diagnostics are molecular, so it can detect the presence of viral DNA even before antibodies are present. This equipment could even potentially be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals who are self-isolating at home, the group notes, which would go a long way to scoping out the portion of the population that’s not currently a priority for other testing methods, but that could provide valuable insight into the true extend of silent, community-based transmission of the coronavirus.

Scanwell aims to launch at-home 15-minute coronavirus test, but it still needs FDA approval

At-home diagnostics startup Scanwell, which produces smartphone-based testing for UTIs, is working on getting at-home testing for the novel coronavirus into the hands of U.S. residents. The technology, which was developed by Chinese diagnostic technology company INNOVITA and has already been approved by China’s equivalent of the FDA and used by “millions” in China, can be taken at home in 15 minutes with the guidance of a medical professional via telehealth, and produces results in just hours.

Scanwell’s test will require FDA clearance, but the company tells me that it’s in the process of securing approval through the FDA’s accelerated emergency certification program. The FDA guidance says that this approval process should take 6-8 weeks (though that “could be faster,” Scanwell says), and Scanwell is aiming to be ready to go with shipping these as soon as it receives that approval. While the U.S. drug regulatory agency previously had only included PCR tests in its protocols, it updated that guidance to include serological tests earlier this week. Scanwell further says they “don’t anticipate any issues with FDA approval.”

The test that Scanwell is aiming to launch uses what’s called a ‘serological’ technique, which looks for antibodies in a patient’s blood. These are only present if someone has been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, since as of right now researchers haven’t found any evidence that natural antibodies to this particular virus exist without exposure. By contrast, the types of tests that are currently in use in the U.S. are “PCR” tests, which use a molecular-based approach to determine if the virus is present genetically in a mucus sample.

The PCR type of test is technically more accurate than the serological variety, but the serological version is much easier to administer, and produces results more quickly. It’s also still very accurate on the whole, and is much cheaper to produce than the PCR version. Plus, it could help expand efforts beyond testing only the most severe cases with symptoms present, and do a much better job of illuminating the full extent of the presence of the virus, including among people with mild cases who have already recovered at home, and those who are asymptomatic but carrying the virus with the possibility of infecting others.

Also, while other, PCR-based at-home testing options already exist, like one from Everlywell that will start going out on Monday, require round-tripping test samples, adding time, complexity and cost and relying on testing materials like swabs that are in short supply globally.

Once the test is available, people deemed eligible via Scanwell’s screening process in their Scanwell Health app will be sent the test via next-day delivery. They’ll be guided by telehealth partner Lemonade’s licensed doctors and nurse practitioners, and they’ll then receive results and further guidance about those results via the app within a few hours. The whole testing process will cost $70, which Scanwell says just covers its costs (it’s also looking at ways to provide free service to those who need it), and will be deployed first in Washington, California and New York, as well as other areas depending on the severity of their coronavirus situation.

That the tests will take potentially 6-8 weeks to come to market seems like a long time, given the current state of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation and testing. But we’ll likely still be very much in need of testing options at that time, especially ones that can serve people who aren’t necessarily meeting the criteria for other available testing resources.

Pixel phones updated with new gesture controls, emoji, AR effects & more

One of the benefits of owning a Pixel smartphone is that it improves over time as Pixels are first to receive updates that deliver the latest fixes and improvements. The first round of new features arrived in December, including a filter for robocalls, more photo controls, improved Duo calls, and more. Today Google says Pixel owners are getting a second set of additions, this time including new music controls, new emoji, still more photo and video features, expanded emergency help features, Google Pay improvements, and several others.

Last year, Google introduced a new sort of gesture control called Motion Sense with the introduction of the Pixel 4. The idea is that you can now control your phone without having to touch it. Instead, the smartphone detects the wave of your hands and translates that into software controls.

Already, Motion Sense allowed Pixel 4 owners to skip forward or go back to a previous song. With today’s update, they’ll also be able to pause and resume music by making a tapping gesture above the phone.

Google suggests this will be an easy way to pause your music when you need to have a conversation. But in reality, it will only be useful if it works consistently — and so far, reviews have said the Motion Sense system was finicky and underdeveloped. That could change in time, of course.

Another improvement today is an update to Pixel 4’s Personal Safety app, which first arrived in October. The app uses the phone’s sensors to detect if you’ve been a severe car crash and checks with you to see if you need help. It also lets U.S. users call 911 with a tap or voice command. If you’re unresponsive, the phone shares your location and details with emergency responders. Now the feature is coming to users in Australia (000) and the U.K. (999).

The new set of updates also includes added AR effects for Google’s video calling app Duo which can change with your expression and move around the screen. These aren’t Duo’s first set of effects, but keeping the roster of effects updated is critical for social communication apps.

Meanwhile, the Pixel 4’s selfie camera can now create images with depth, which improves Portrait Blur and color pop, and lets you create 3D photos for Facebook.

Pixel phones will also now receive the emoji version 12.1 update which hit iPhone with the iOS 3.2 update in October 2019, and which arrived on Twitter in January 2020. The set includes 169 new and more inclusive emoji, offering a wider array of gender and skin tones as well as more couple combinations.

A change to Google Pay will now let you press and hold the power button to swipe through your debit and credit cards, event tickets, boarding passes, and other stored items. This is coming first to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Taiwan, and Singapore.

You can also now take a screenshot of a boarding pass’s barcode then tap a notification to add it to Google Pay, to then receive real-time flight updates as notifcations. This is rolling out to all countries with Google Play on Pixel 3, 3a, and 4 during March.

For power users, another useful addition lets you now configure rules based on Wi-Fi or physical location. For example, you can set your phone to automatically silence your ringtone when you arrive at work, or go to Do Not Disturb mode when you get home, among other things.

Other new features include the rollout of Live Caption (automatic captions) to Pixel 2 phones, the ability to schedule when Pixel’s Dark theme turns off and on, an easier means of accessing emergency contacts and medical info, improved long-press options for getting faster help from your apps, and an update to Adaptive brightness to make reading in direct sunlight easier.

Google says the new feature set is rolling out starting today. You may not see it immediately, but should fairly soon.