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Test, test, test – developing new assays for COVID-19 screening

03 Apr 2020
Artist's impression of a corona virus

A project proposed by a research consortium at the Vienna BioCenter has been accepted for funding by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF). The project entitled “Development of sensitive and scalable screening assays for population-scale virus surveillance of COVID-19 infections” will receive the maximum support of EUR 50,000 under the “WWTF COVID-19 Rapid Response Funding 2020” initiative.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus is challenging societies around the world. As the development of a vaccine and effective anti-viral therapies may take many months, there is broad consensus that containment of the COVID-19 pandemic can only be achieved by a massive expansion of virus testing, which is proving to be a major bottleneck in most countries. The need for population-wide screening programmes is underpinned by recent estimates that 86% of all infections remain undetected and largely asymptomatic and that such cases have been the infection source for 79% of all COVID-19 patients (Li et al, Science 16, March 2020).

In addition to blood tests for virus-specific antibodies, which only emerge several days after the primary SARS-CoV-2 infection, the success of systematic screening programmes will critically depend on scalable assays that enable the early detection of viral RNA. In a highly collaborative effort, the WWTF-funded project will pursue several innovative approaches to rapidly develop and implement new high-throughput assays for detecting SARS-CoV-2 viruses in sputum and swab samples. Once implemented, these approaches could boost the daily capacity for virus testing from current numbers in the thousands to population scale, which will be needed to control COVID-19 until a vaccine and effective therapies become available. 

The project is part of a collaborative effort between several scientists and research groups with complementary expertise at IMP and IMBA, including Johannes Zuber (IMP), Julius Brennecke (IMBA), Ulrich Elling (IMBA), Stefan Ameres (IMBA), Andrea Pauli (IMP), and Luisa Cochella (IMP). It is run in close partnership with the Vienna COVID-19 Diagnostics Initiative (VCDI) and clinical partners at the SMZ Süd.

“This is a highly collaborative effort between many research groups at the Vienna BioCenter as well as excellent clinical partners. It is really amazing how basic scientists and clinicians have come together in this crisis, and we are grateful for this rapid support from the WWTF”, says Johannes Zuber. Work on the project will start immediately, the funding period covers one year.

The Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF) is a non-profit organisation established to promote science and research in Vienna. Under its “WWTF COVID-19 Rapid Response Funding 2020” initiative, 24 research projects will receive up to EUR 50,000 each.

Related links:
Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF)
Vienna COVID-19 Diagnostics Initiative (VCDI)