ACT to be base for global fast-screening COVID-19 test roll-out

Conventional biological testing procedures for COVID-19. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Conventional biological testing procedures for COVID-19. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

A businessman and former physicist now based in Canberra is poised to be a key player in the international roll-out of a new coronavirus fast-screening device.

The Virolens device is a new electronic product which uses imagery, rather than biology, to screen for the coronavirus.

It was developed in the UK by a company called iAbra which specialises in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, in partnership with microchip giant Intel.

The company developed the technology based on microscopic holographic imaging and artificial intelligence software.

It uses a digital camera attached to a microscope to analyse saliva samples, with the data run through a computer trained to identify the virus from other cells, delivering an end result in just 20 seconds.

The first round of field testing has just been completed at Heathrow Airport and another UK company, TT Electronics is now building pre-production models.

A validation study designed by University of Bristol found the Virolens system had a 99.8 per cent sensitivity and 96.7 per cent specificity.

The Virolens unit under field tests at Heathrow Airport.

The Virolens unit under field tests at Heathrow Airport.

The chief executive officer of KeyOptions, Rick Wylie, said the potentially lucrative deal for his company to distribute the technology in Australia, Latin America and south-east Asia was landed when his company was invited by iAbra to discuss other elements of the product roll-out which were more his company's core business.

"We went to talk to the guys at iAbra initially about asset tracking of the devices from a security perspective and location data analytics," Mr Wylie said.

"We talked to them about how we would do that, and they were very happy about that."

But then when the conversation turned to what iAbra was doing to distribute the product in parts of the world other than the UK and Europe, they said hadn't yet planned that part of the roll-out.

"So a month later we came back to them with a plan and they agreed," he said.

He said he was very excited about the technology and how it could provide a significant easing of coronavirus restrictions all around the world in places such as airports, sporting events and mass gatherings.

"The potential for air travel pre-screening alone is massive worldwide," he said.

He explained that the reason why iAbra had a "head start" on developing this technology was because of the company's expertise in artificial intelligence, and the specialised Intel chips they already use for other areas of their business.

"These guys have had 10 years of using artificial intelligence for identification in imagery and they've basically taken that expertise - it's like looking for needles in haystacks - and applied it to this problem," he said.

Fast-tracked approval for the device is now underway by UK health authorities and a pre-production version of the machine is set to land in Australia next week.

It also requires approval by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration.

"It has been a sprint for iAbra to get this product developed and field-tested and now we're going through the approvals processes with them as production is gearing up," Mr Wylie said.

"You can only imagine the potential worldwide demand for something which provides a screening result in seconds, as opposed to days.

"We've hit the ground running on this and haven't stopped because this reduces the amount of the delay and disruption that comes with conventional biological testing."

He flagged that there was potential for software to connect a person's screening outcome from the Virolens machine to the COVID-19 app, generating a smartphone Q-code which would identify that person and their result so they could travel and attend events.

While he usually lives in Melbourne, he said that having a second base in Canberra away from the lockdown has proved an unexpected benefit for this company.

This story ACT to be base for global fast-screening COVID-19 test roll-out first appeared on The Canberra Times.