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UW researchers developing faster COVID test that could allow frequent, repeat testing anywhere

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Madison (WKOW) -- Scientists at UW-Madison are conducting research studies right now to develop a new COVID-19 test that could be conducted anywhere, is cheaper than current testing and gives results in mere hours.

"If this is viable, I think this is the next biggest thing," said Amy Moy, one of dozens of people who participated in the research study.

It was conducted entirely outside Friday with folding tables set up in a parking lot for sample collection, and more tables set up in a nearby alley for analysis. From start to finish, the test took place outside of a lab.

After filling out paperwork, Moy was handed a vial that she spat into, rather than sticking swabs up her nose like in a conventional COVID test.

"This is a lot more comfortable," she said.

The sample collection took about a minute. Her vial was then collected with other participants, and analysis began.

"We're exactly envisioning this as a solution for schools or workplaces where you want to screen people for the potential that they are contagious," said Professor Thomas Friedrich.

Friedrich says models show people should be tested twice a week to have the best chance to detect COVID-19 while they're still contagious, but before they develop symptoms.

"The rapid nature of this test will allow us to test people more frequently," he said.

This research is in very early stages, and any results from Friday's study or any others using this or similar methods are considered non-diagnostic until a final testing model is developed and vetted through proper regulatory channels.

Still, so far Friedrich says the tests have been accurate when the same samples are run through traditional testing processes.

Professor Dave O'Connor has years of experience developing testing for diseases like AIDS and Zika all over the world, and he says this type of portable, fast, repeatable testing for COVID-19 could change how we view testing entirely.

"The current diagnostic testing by itself is not meeting the need for testing, certainly not repeated testing with very fast turnaround," he said. "If you can put everything in a minivan, you can re-imagine how and where you do the testing. So what we're doing is some of this early testing in selected places in Madison with the idea of trying to figure out how this works."

Through these studies with the new testing system, researchers are working to drill down to find the safest way for society to start to look like normal again -- in the absence of a vaccine.

"If you were able to test twice a week, would you be able to reduce transmission?" O'Connor said.

Friedrich says campuses across the country are working on different versions of these testing designs, with each racing to figure out whose test will be the most feasible and accurate. He's expecting the trials at UW to continue for the next few weeks, but if all goes well, there could be something widely available this fall.

"That would be the goal," Friedrich said. "Hopefully we can roll this out more widely over the next few months if everything works out here."

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