Portable devices test surfaces for COVID-19 for under $9K

Portable surface testing for COVID-19 could help companies verify that their decontamination steps have been effective. The bCUBE from Hyris relies on AI to speed up results. (Hyris)

Businesses reopening after weeks of pandemic may need to verify that touched surfaces on doors, bathrooms and kitchens are free of COVID-19. Many labs offer such services but at least two tech firms offer portable on-site testing devices for under $9,000.

The Centers for Disease Control released new guidelines this week on how to safely reopen the country that say transmission through surfaces is less of a threat than earlier believed.  The CDC warns that COVID-19 is primarily spread from person to person by respiratory droplets.

However, the CDC still urges people to “routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.” “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly eyes,” the guidance noted.  “This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus.”

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With some doubt still remaining about surface contamination, many companies are likely to continue complex surface cleaning processes and then to validate that surfaces show no evidence of COVID-19 by using some type of test and viral analysis.

As well as the many surface testing services on the market, one European company announced Thursday it is selling its portable DNA analysis platform called bCUBE for the first time in the U.S. The company, Hyris, calls itself a leader in AI applications for advanced diagnostics. It invented the kit in a lab in Lodi, Italy, in the heart of the Italian COVID-19 red zone with offices in London and Milan.

The small kit can identify contaminated, non-porous hard surfaces on-site in about 90 minutes to help companies validate the effectiveness of their COVID-19 disinfection steps, according to the company.

Hyris CEO Stefano Lo Priore said in a statement that the use of AI for analysis and the fast results the bCUBE provides help differentiate it from other products on the market.  It called the price affordable, but the company has not publicly announced an overall price. 

In an email to FierceElectronics, Lo Priore said the cost to run the test is use-case dependent, but some cutomers in Europe are paying as little as 70 cents per employee per day. Several telecom infrastructure clients in Europe are using bCUBE to test for coronavirus, and orders from North America have arrived. 

George Dimopoulos, a molecular biology professor and public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University told FierceElectronics that his team had used the bCUBE diagnostic platform for detecting Zika and dengue virus in mosquito samples, but not to detect COVID. 

A scientific abstract from Dimopoulos and colleagues on their research dated May 1 says the portable bCUBE “is capable of detecting Zika and dengue virus as well as Wolbachia in mosquitos and therefore has potential as a practical field-deployable diagnostic test for vector-borne disease surveillance programs.”

Dimopoulos said via email that he estimated the bCUBE would cost in the range of $8,000, but Hyris didn’t confirm that amount.  The Johns Hopkins team only used an evaluation unit that was not purchased.  In a statement from Hyris, Dimopoulos is quoted saying the bCUBE “provided excellent performance even when compared with much more expensive instrumentation.” By comparison, some traditional PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test machines used in research labs can cost upwards of $200,000.

Hyris doesn’t state the percentage of validity of its testing device on its website but called the results “accurate” for rapid DNA/RNA analysis and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and isothermal protocols.  The performance of the bCUBE is “comparable or better than other commercially available real-time PCR instruments,” an online brochure adds.  The device also uses an integrated automatic data elaboration AI module “which allows an immediate and simple interpretation of results.”

A three-minute video describes how the device works.

Hyris provides dedicated swabs that can be wiped on a surface to obtain a sample with the sample removed from a swab tube via a dropper. The samples are dopped directly into small wells in a cartridge which is then inserted into the Hyris bCUBE device.  A laptop can be used to run a Hyris app to control the test and to obtain results.

Hyris said it followed guidance from CDC and the World Health Organization in building its device. There’s no reason to think it won’t perform well.

However, one report from the publication Undark on May 11 said various tests to detect COVID-19 on surfaces show “mixed results.” Tests “vary drastically in price and potential performance,” the article noted.

The biggest testing hurdle is the ability to tell the difference between a viable “live” virus, which can infect a person, and traces of viral RNA, which cannot sicken anyone.  Detecting the RNA does not necessarily mean that a infectious virus is on a surface, according to Andrea Silverman, a researcher at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, quoted in the Undark article.

A potential competitor to the Hyris device is one made by Chai, based in Santa Clara, California, that costs $8,500 and gives test results in under an hour, according to its website.

Other companies that offer COVID-19 surface testing (some are lab-based) include: Eurofins Technologies, Source Molecular, Hygiena, and Hawken Environmental.

As with any new technology, analysts urge companies to evaluate portable surface testing devices and compare features and prices.  There might not be time in today’s COVID-19 world to be as thorough with the evaluation process, but the work could prove essential.

RELATED: Northwestern creates wearable sensor for detecting COVID-19 symptoms

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