Saliva-based, AI-driven COVID-19 test delivers results in just 20 seconds

10 September 2020

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UK-headquartered electronics manufacturer, TT Electronics has been working with British tech start-up, iAbra & its partners, including Intel, to design, develop & test the prototype Virolens system, a new saliva-based screening device for COVID-19 that can deliver results in just 20 seconds, and to specify & design its manufacturing process.

The new Virolens® system provides accurate, reliable and low-cost test results for COVID-19 in 20 seconds. The speed of tests conducted using the screening device, combined with its portability, could provide a major boost to transport hubs, offices, and sporting and cultural events venues reopening after lockdown.

Virolens® has been developed by British tech start-up, iAbra, with design and manufacturing expertise from UK-based TT Electronics, and features technology powered by Intel. It has already been successfully trialled at London Heathrow Airport over recent weeks and can now be rolled out to any dynamic environment where people need to be in close proximity to one another.

The Virolens® system is a COVID-19 screening device based on microscopic holographic imaging and artificial intelligence (AI) software technology. It uses a digital camera attached to a microscope to analyse saliva samples, with the data run through a computer that is trained to identify the virus from other cells, delivering an end result in just 20 seconds.

Virolens® uses a self administered mouth swab, which is placed inside a cartridge and inserted into the portable, tabletop system. The holographic microscope inside is designed to examine nano-scale structures, looking at the light diffracted off the surface of each cell in the testing sample. This data is run through a computer trained by AI to identify the unique pattern of the virus from other cells very quickly – the same process that is used to understand what distant stars and planets are made from.

The Virolens® system was trained to recognise COVID-19 virus particles in saliva using a range of samples of COVID-19 virus provided by virologists working on the virus at the University of Bristol. The Virolens® system has a 99.8% sensitivity and 96.7% specificity, based on the results of an internal in-vitro validation study, demonstrating an exciting proof of concept.

4k images are produced inside the machine without having to go off to the cloud, meaning that the solution is completely self-contained and can give a result immediately. This is a solution rooted in technology and physics, rather than biology, which has enabled it to be rapidly developed and rolled out.

Current gold standard WHO (World Health Organization) PCR (polymerase chain reaction) COVID tests are conducted in offsite laboratories by biologists using traditional ‘wet testing’ techniques, involving intrusive swabs, and can take several hours to produce a result. The Virolens® system is able to count individual active virus cells in any sample.

Following the first round of field testing, carried out by iAbra in partnership with London Heathrow Airport, initial trial orders have now been secured with launch customers around the world, including London Heathrow Airport and Leidos in the United States. Meanwhile, Virolens® is about to embark on clinical trials, which would be necessary for it to be certified for medical use.

Virolens® does not need to be administered by healthcare professionals and is quick, easy and repeatable, with each screening device capable of carrying out hundreds of tests per day at a cost of a paperback book for each test. This means it can simply and cost-effectively be deployed in busy environments, transport hubs and other public spaces, such as offices and workplaces, stations, airports, sports venues and events spaces. It will allow people to get on with their everyday lives in the knowledge they are in a safe 'COVID-secure' environment.

Initial commercial launch & potential

UK-based global manufacturer of electronic components & provider of manufacturing services, TT Electronics has been appointed as exclusive manufacturing partner for the commercial launch of Virolens®, which incorporates several TT proprietary products. Working in collaboration with iAbra and its global supply chain, TT has successfully taken the product from concept to production in just 14 weeks.

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TT will manufacture Virolens® at its Hartlepool, UK facility, part of its Power & Connectivity division, for this launch phase, creating a number of new jobs and opportunities for the site and the local economy. TT will invest up to £5 million to support this phase of the programme and the launch of Virolens® globally. Additional device production and cartridge assembly may also take place at other TT locations, as required.

Initial orders for devices and testing cartridges, to be delivered to potential launch customers in September and October 2020, total a value of circa £2 million, while the opportunity from expressions of interest could reach £280 million over the next 12 months. This additional revenue is dependent on iAbra’s end customers converting their expressions of interest into firm orders and subject to Virolens® meeting regulatory authority requirements. Delivery of these further orders could commence in Q4 2020, and would continue into 2021.

Selection of TT as a Virolens® partner

British tech startup, iAbra, founded in 2010 and headquartered in Bedfordshire, UK, is an expert in embedded AI image analysis. Its tools enable efficient neural networks to be created and optimised for embedded FPGA silicon, delivering low power AI inference for a variety of applications. It has been developing neural network image analysis software for 10 years, with applications in autonomous driving already in production.

Virolens® is based on a new application of this existing technology, and has been developed in partnership with TT, and powered by Intel. TT was selected as the design and manufacturing partner because of its ability to develop an idea from concept into a fully functioning machine, which can be produced in volume. TT's engineering expertise and sub-system product capability, coupled with its global manufacturing footprint, have been a significant contributor to the rapid development of iAbra's concept design.

Richard Tyson, CEO of TT Electronics said: “Providing critical products and services to support life-saving and other essential technology, including medical applications, lies at the heart of what TT does. Today’s exciting announcement is testament to our position in the innovative and world-leading UK technology and manufacturing sectors. We’re delighted that iAbra has recognised our design engineering expertise and specialist products in choosing to partner with us to take the game-changing Virolens® COVID-19 screening device into manufacture.

Greg Compton, CEO of iAbra said: “This is a significant step forward in the battle against COVID-19, much of which has revolved around our inability to keep society moving with the constant background threat of infection. Our system allows simple, high speed, reliable and low-cost testing in dynamic environments. In short, with the Virolens system, we can get the world moving again.

John Holland Kaye, CEO at Heathrow Airport said: “Testing for COVID-19 is the lifeline that the UK economy needs to get back on its feet. Currently the bottleneck is the availability of the government’s preferred PCR testing labs – rapid point-of-care tests solve that problem. I have experienced iAbra’s test myself, alongside the PCR test – it is quicker and cheaper, and potentially more accurate. We urge the government to fast track this technology to protect the economy and help save millions of jobs in this country.”   

About TT Electronics

TT Electronics is a global provider of engineered electronics for performance-critical applications. The company operates in industries where there are structural growth drivers, working with market-leading customers primarily in aerospace and defence, medical and industrial sectors.  Products designed and manufactured include sensors, power management devices and connectivity solutions. TT has design and manufacturing facilities, including in the UK, US, Mexico, Sweden and Asia.

The company has three divisions. The Power & Connectivity division designs and manufactures power application products and connectivity devices which enable the capture and wireless transfer of data. TT collaborates with customers to develop innovative solutions to optimise their electronic systems. The Global Manufacturing Solutions division provides manufacturing services and engineering solutions for TT product divisions and to customers that often require a lower volume and higher mix of products. TT manufactures complex integrated product assemblies for customers and provides engineering services, including designing and testing solutions, and value-engineering. The Sensors & Specialist Components division works with customers to develop standard and customised solutions, including sensors and power management devices. TT solutions improve the precision, speed and reliability of critical aspects of customers' applications.


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