A PCR Test Alternative With Early Warning Potential
PCR tests are necessary and useful, but they also have many downsides. The pandemic made it clear that we need a PCR test alternative to stay ahead of a viral outbreak, and acoustic monitoring may be the answer. Is a sound-based surveillance as an acceptable compromise between privacy and data needs.
The Drawbacks of PCR Tests
A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can make millions of copies of a specific DNA sample for tests and studies. PCR tests detect an antigen’s presence, such as a virus, rather than the presence of antibodies. In part, it may help stop the spread of infection because it can detect a virus before any antibodies form or symptoms appear.
PCR testing does have some drawbacks, however. Because it involves many stages, it’s labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly. And between sampling and analysis, there’s a risk for errors to occur. A recent review found up to 33% of PCR tests result in false-negatives, and 4% result in false-positives.
Additionally, some sample collection methods can be painful or invasive. For example, a COVID-19 test uses a nasopharyngeal swab to collect a sample, which means inserting the swab deep in the nasal cavity.
It’s also worth noting that PCR tests are static. You would need a test every other day, making it an unfeasible long-term solution for viral outbreaks. Particularly in the context of a large venue, business, or campus. Antibody tests and registries work in theory, but there is no certainty that someone with antibodies couldn’t get sick again or be a silent transmitter.
As mentioned, PCR testing needs trained technicians and resources. People in remote areas don’t always have access to medical facilities for testing.
At the same time, if there’s an outbreak, laboratories can become inundated, leading to delayed diagnoses, isolation, and treatment.
Acoustic Monitoring As PCR Test Alternative
Ecologists and conservation researchers have a long history of using sound to study nature. Researchers monitor sound with the help of remote microphones and recorders. They often use it in conjunction with visual observations and surveys to collect valuable data about where species are, the population’s size, and what they’re doing.
Acoustic monitoring is one of the favorite data collection methods for good reason. Firstly, it’s cost-effective, and aside from the initial labor to install monitoring devices, it doesn’t need a lot of people to collect data. With recent advances in machine learning, analyzing the sounds may become fully automated as well.
For this reason, sound-based surveillance could be a cheap and scalable PCR test alternative.
We can build a baseline profile of all the coughing sounds that happen in a given space, for instance, an office or school campus. The criteria can include typical daily coughs and sneeze levels. Using this benchmark, we can identify any deviation from the standard baseline and use it as an early warning system to take action sooner.
While acoustic monitoring won’t replace the need for testing, it may combat the spread of infections and prevent another pandemic. Lastly, sound-based surveillance may help determine when to take social distancing measures.
Biosensing: PCR Test Alternative of the Future
Biosensing is another PCR test alternative worth mentioning. But it might still be a while before it’s ready.
A team of researchers in Switzerland developed a sensor that can detect a virus’s concentration in the air. With the help of thermal and optical technology, the team believes their sensor can monitor a virus’s spread in real-time, especially in crowded areas such as airports.
Another alternative may come in the form of biosensing chips, and many startups are creating and researching biosensors for testing.
The idea is to create chips similar to a silicone MOSFET (field-effect transistor) with a gate and a source. But instead of a voltage signal, the sensors use biomolecules.
For this, scientists cover semiconductor circuitry in a biological material that will attract and bind with the target material in a sample, such as a virus. The bond will cause a notable change in the electron flow that indicates the presence of the virus.
The chips don’t need amplified DNA and, therefore, won’t have to undergo multiple steps and lab processes. In other words, it has a speed advantage over PCR tests as well as a smaller margin of error. A single chip can hold many circuits and likely run multiple tests at the same time.
Biosensors could make PCR tests obsolete in the future. But, for now, it’s not a viable alternative. It still has a long way to go before we can expect this kind of high-speed testing.
Overall, biosensors have vast potential, but it’s still in the development phase. The pandemic made it abundantly clear that we can’t wait for a viable PCR test alternative much longer. While researchers are finding alternative testing methods, acoustic monitoring offers a unique solution we can start using today. To find out more about sound-based surveillance, visit our blog.
Have you had a PCR test? Share your experience and thoughts in the comment section!