Researchers have developed a new smartphone app and lab kit that are designed to allow certain smartphones to function as a COVID-19/flu detection system.

The detection system can be readily adapted for other pathogens with pandemic potential, including deadly variants of COVID and flu. It also provides a platform for home-based testing.

Developed by a research team of UC Santa Barbara scientists and colleagues, the smartphone study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open. The system succeeded in achieving rapid and accurate diagnosis of COVID-19, COVID variants, and flu viruses.

The app uses a smartphone’s camera to measure a chemical reaction and determines a diagnosis in 25 minutes—at a fraction of the cost of current diagnostic methods, the study says.  The app and methodology are free and openly available to all.

The project was led by professors Michael MahanDavid Low, and Charles Samuel of UC Santa Barbara, along with Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital physicians Jeffrey Fried, MD and Lynn Fitzgibbons, MD Additional collaborators include UCSB scientists Douglas Heithoff, Lucien Barnes, Scott Mahan and Gary Fox—as well as Cottage Hospital scientists Katherine Arn, MD, Andrew Bishop, MD, and Sarah Ettinger, MD.

“As new COVID variants emerge globally, testing and detection remain essential to pandemic control efforts,” says lead author Mahan. “Nearly half the world’s population has a smartphone, and we believe that this holds exciting potential to provide fair and equal access to precision diagnostic medicine.”

The collaboration was launched to develop rapid, low-cost diagnostics that can be used by healthcare providers anywhere in the world to diagnose COVID-19. Development of the lab kit can requires little more than a smartphone, a hot plate, and LED lights.

The process, termed smaRT-LAMP, is simple and straightforward. A small volume of the patient’s saliva is collected and analyzed by the smartphone app using the phone’s camera and the diagnostic kit.

“The key finding was solving the LAMP ‘primer-dimer’ problem — false positives due to high sensitivity — which scientists have struggled with for more than 20 years,” says Heithoff. “It took more than 500 attempts to solve it for COVID-19, after which flu viruses were detected on the very first try.”

“We hope technologies like this offer new ways of bringing state-of-the-art diagnostics to underserved and vulnerable populations,” says.

The free, custom-built app was developed for the Android operating system and can be downloaded and installed from the Google Play Store.

“Such early detection and quarantine can also reduce the risk of future global outbreaks,” says Fried.

This research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory via the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies cooperative agreement and contract.