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South Coast researchers say they've created accurate, low cost smartphone-based COVID-19 PCR test

Jonas Leupe
UC Santa Barbara researchers have developed a new home PCR test which uses an app and smartphone to make a diagnosis.

Test developed by UC Santa Barbara team uses app and smartphone to diagnose whether someone has COVID-19.

A team of South Coast researchers thinks it’s solved a huge puzzle — how to create a highly accurate, low cost COVID-19 home PCR test.

"It was like a giant Rubik's Cube," said UC Santa Barbara microbiologist Michael Mahan. "You had to get everything perfect, or it didn't work."

Mahan is one of the leaders of a team of scientists which focused on coming up with a simple home PCR test.

Mahan says the commonly used home antigen tests are cheap, but often inaccurate. PCR tests offered at official test sites are much more accurate, but home use versions cost more than $100 each.

Three years ago, Mahan and his fellow researchers developed a smartphone based system which could be used to detect urinary tract infections. The idea was to use the same approach for PCR tests.

Nearly two years ago, they pulled together a team to work on the problem.

Here's the idea. You spit in a cup which contains a special solution. You then heat it. Then, you use the camera in your smartphone, and a special app to make the diagnosis, The app has a simple, step-by-step guide on how to do the test.

The system developed by researchers uses a special solution and a smartphone to offer low cost home PCR COVID-19 testing.

But, Mahan says the key was the testing mix. They finally came up with the right combination to make it work.

"Really, it was like the 500th try. So 499 times, it didn't work," said Mahan. "It was very clear that when conditions were perfect, we got the reaction, we got it every time."

You’d think this cutting edge test would make the researchers millionaires.

But, the team did this with the goal of doing something good for the world. They just published the results of their study in the scientific journal JAMA Network Open.

They are making their results open source, which means anyone can take it for free, and get the low costs tests on the market.

Mahan thinks the simple, low cost PCR tests could be in stores in less than two years. And, there’s a bonus to the technology. It can not only detect, and confirm COVID-19 and its variants, it can also find, and confirm influenza.