As the country gears up for a double threat of flu and coronavirus this winter, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock announces plans for the ‘biggest flu vaccination programme in history’, a new test being developed by Iceni Diagnostics promises a quick way to distinguish between the two diseases. Rapidly identifying which virus is present will support timely treatment and isolation of those carrying coronavirus.

Dr Berwyn Clarke, Chairman of Iceni Diagnostics, says that the company is on plan to deliver in the New Year, a 15-minute test that can provide an accurate diagnosis.

He says: “We have a technology that is very good for identifying flu types – it can tell the difference between bird flu, equine flu and human flu. After the huge economic impact caused by equine flu last year, our efforts had been directed at creating a test for equine flu that could be used in racing stables – and this work is well advanced.

“However, as soon as the coronavirus pandemic broke, we realised that our technology could be applied to coronavirus as well, so we diverted our efforts and the company is now focussed very firmly on fast-tracking a new test for coronavirus.

“One of the benefits of our approach is that we already have the test available for human flu. When the flu season starts at the end of the year there is going to be a real need to determine if a respiratory infection is conventional flu or coronavirus. To rapidly tell the difference between the two would be a huge advantage.”

The Iceni Diagnostics test identifies the presence of a live virus from a throat swab and gives a clear yes/no response.

Dr Clarke continues: “The really big advantage of this test is that it can tell if you are carrying a live infection. This has real implications for effective disease management, as it is now known that many carriers of the infection are asymptomatic. A rapid test that can be used widely, not just for symptomatic patients, would enable effective detection and quarantine.

“So, we are developing the test to be mass produced, with the ambition that in future the tests will be used in a non-medical setting such as pubs, airports and other venues to ensure everyone is confirmed free of the virus at the point of entry.”

The current tests require a testing kit to be sent out and the swab returned to the lab, with the results taking upwards of 48 hours to be returned. Most diagnostics also identify the virus by samples of its genetic material and this changes as the virus mutates. The Iceni Diagnostics’ test takes a different path, as Dr Clarke explains:

“When a virus infects a cell, it interacts with sugars called glycans on the surface of the cell and this two-way communication is specific to the type of virus. We exploit this mechanism to demonstrate the presence of live virus . The test will be a lateral flow device like the familiar home pregnancy test.

“We are anticipating the tests being ready for trialling this autumn ahead of the clinical validation that is required to meet the stringent standards that are demanded by the NHS and other bodies. We hope it will be available early in the New Year in time for the higher incidence of flu.”