Diagnostics startup ID Genomics snags NIH grant to develop rapid test for COVID-19 variants

Dr. Evgeni Sokurenko, co-founder of ID Genomics and University of Washington professor. (UW Photo)

Diagnostics startup ID Genomics will accelerate its development of a quick test for variants of the COVID-19 virus with a new grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The Seattle-based company announced the $300,000 small business grant Tuesday for the dipstick-based test, currently dubbed CovNET. ID Genomics is also eligible for a follow-on grant of up to $3 million.

Most tests for the virus simply provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to whether someone is infected. ID Genomics’ prototype test can also distinguish which variant an individual is infected with, and it can do so within two hours.

That’s faster than the gold-standard method, which involves sequencing the genome of the virus to detect variants. Some existing rapid tests can also pick up a single variant or a few, but CovNET stands out by distinguishing among dozens, according to ID Genomics’ co-founder Evgeni Sokurenko.

Dipsticks ready for analysis. (ID Genomics)

Sokurenko co-founded ID Genomics in 2014 with the goal of combining epidemiological surveillance, bioinformatics and molecular diagnostics. The 6-person company provides a variety of services to identify different microbes and their subtypes.

In addition to developing the CovNET rapid test, ID Genomics will launch a next-day sequencing service for variants within the next few weeks. The researchers showcased their sequencing approach in a recent study of a variant that emerged in California.

But the new two-hour test could ultimately be easier to deploy and potentially cheaper, aiding “real-time” monitoring of current and emerging variants, said Sokurenko, who is also a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington. The UW is the academic partner on the grant.

Sokurenko said that easy detection of variants could “help with close monitoring of pandemic dynamics, viral evolution and spread as well as timely detection and containment of local outbreaks.” In addition, better detection could also support the development of treatments tailored to each version of the virus.

New variants are continually emerging, and the highly contagious delta variant is now dominant in the U.S. and many other countries. The World Health Organization has identified three other ‘Variants of Concern.’ These variants are known to be nastier than the original version of the virus, for instance transmitting more easily or making people sicker.

ID Genomics aims for an easy-to-use test that could be rapidly deployed across epidemiological surveillance labs globally. “With all stars aligned, we might start selling the test kit within months,” said Sokurenko of CovNET. “Affordability is the goal,” he added.

The prototype CovNET test uses a technique called PCR to identify variants, which show up as bands on a strip. The location and intensity of the bands can identify the predominant variant in a sample. Each double-sided strip in the test can identify up to 24 variants and using more strips enables detection of more variants.

Dipstick developing after incubation of sample in nanocycler. (ID Genomics Photo)

The company is also developing a smartphone app to rapidly decode the bands and identify which variant they correspond to.

CovNET adapts components of technology built by Bothell, Wash.-based IEH laboratories for other types of tests. IEH Laboratories is also collaborating with ID Genomics to a develop a pocket-size “nanocycler” to incubate the samples. The battery-powered device is capable of the rapid cycles of heating and cooling in the PCR portion of the test, which amplifies the genetic material of the virus.

The new grant will enable the startup to optimize the prototype test and validate it on a large number of clinical samples. ID Genomics is also working on agreements for manufacturing and distribution.

There is a growing pool of diagnostic tests for COVID-19, many tracked by Seattle-based PATH. New tests include a home-based PCR test to detect the virus from Amazon, and a test that can also tell if you’ve been infected with the virus in the past, developed by Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies in partnership with Microsoft.

But there is a need for tests that can enable more efficient surveillance of variants. Washington state is currently sequencing close to 20% of virus samples for variants, but that is more than most states and many national labs.

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