A unique COVID testing method invented at the University of Birmingham is set for a global rollout after its commercial rights were licensed to COVID-19 test provider, Innova Medical Group–a California-based global health screening and diagnostics company.

Known as Reverse Transcription-Free EXPAR (RTF-EXPAR) testing, this new technology offers detection in as little as 10 minutes. 

Detailed test evaluations reveal the method delivers a fast, accurate, highly sensitive and simple test for COVID-19 detection, meaning the test could be deployed en masse at entertainment venues, airport arrival terminals, and in remote settings where clinical testing laboratories are not available.

The method is just as sensitive as both PCR and LAMP tests—currently used in hospital settings—and is also faster and more sensitive than lateral flow tests, enabling detection at low viral levels. Crucially, it can be used with testing techniques which bypass the need for specialized laboratory equipment, which would reduce delays in waiting for test results, which currently requires samples to be sent to specialist laboratories.

New COVID Testing Method

The COVID  assay was invented and tested at the University of Birmingham, which found its sensitivity to be equivalent to quantitative PCR testing. This new RTF-EXPAR testing platform is also being adapted for the detection of other viruses, meaning the tests can be quickly adapted to cover both new variants and new viruses. The technology’s new license holder, Innova Medical Group, is the world’s largest provider of lateral flow tests. The company is aiming to accelerate RTF-EXPAR’s global rollout for widespread use by 2023.

The approach behind RTF uses reagents that can be adapted for the detection of other viruses, meaning the tests can be quickly adapted to cover both new variants and other viruses, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer.

“The RTF technology developed at the University of Birmingham hits a testing sweet spot. It’s just as sensitive as PCR and LAMP tests, but without the time constraints and laboratory equipment required for these methods,” says Robert Kasprzak, CEO at Innova. “We’re committed to accelerating RTF’s growth and further complementing our current portfolio of healthcare diagnostic products that strengthen the pandemic management solutions we offer to global customers. We’ve been searching globally for advanced diagnostics technologies to manage the current pandemic and mitigate future healthcare challenges, and we were impressed by the RTF testing method and the team behind it deserves enormous credit for their innovation.”

Since the COVID pandemic’s outbreak, Innova Medical Group has delivered more than 1.5 billion lateral flow tests to customers worldwide. The company aims to provide effective, high-quality diagnostic products at reasonable prices to more people around the world.

“The RTF test rapidly amplifies small quantities of viral genetic material, producing a detectable signal within 10 minutes, which is much faster than PCR or LAMP testing and even quicker than lateral flow tests,” says professor Tim Dafforn from the University of Birmingham. “The reverse transcription and amplification steps slow down existing COVID-19 assays like LAMP and PCR, which are based on nucleic acid detection, thus an ideal test would be both sufficiently sensitive and speedy; the new RTF test achieves that goal in two ways – a new RNA-to-DNA conversion step we designed avoids reverse transcription and the amplification step to generate the read-out signal uses EXPAR, an alternative DNA amplification process.”

Professor James Tucker from the University of Birmingham added: “EXPAR amplifies DNA at a single temperature, thus avoiding lengthy heating and cooling steps found in PCR; however, while LAMP also uses a single temperature for amplification, EXPAR is a simpler and a more direct process in which much smaller strands are amplified making it an even faster DNA amplification technique than not only PCR but also LAMP.”