Rapid nucleic acid amplification tests that were developed by the LKS Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong (HKUMed) to detect the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in patients are being used by public health care laboratories in more than 40 countries and have successfully identified confirmed cases in some of these countries.
The tests were developed by Dr Daniel Chu Ka-wing, Professor Leo Poon Lit-man and Professor Malik Peiris from the Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences in HKUMed’s School of Public Health in January and the reference materials and reagents have been freely provided to overseas laboratories so they can prepare for this epidemic and identify COVID-19 patients early.
The tests are based on real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which aims to detect viral RNA in patients. Genetic contents are extracted from the tested samples and a portion is amplified using virus-specific primers that recognise unique viral RNA sequences. These are then reported by a DNA probe. This approach is highly sensitive and can detect minute amounts of viral RNA from samples within two hours.
The Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences developed two primer/probe sets within six days after China released the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on January 10, 2020, and shared its findings widely for free.1,2 As of now, public health care laboratories in more than 40 countries around the world have received reagents for the tests designed by HKUMed. Countries like Egypt, Cambodia and Nepal have successfully identified confirmed cases with these tests.
The findings are currently available through the World Health Organization (WHO) and HKUMed. HKUMed’s School of Public Health is one of WHO Reference Laboratories for COVID-19 and it has been receiving samples from all over the world and providing testing on COVID-19.
“Since the outbreak of SARS in 2003, the research team in HKUMed’s School of Public Health has been working diligently in basic research on emerging infectious diseases and it has accumulated knowledge and experience in multiple crisis situations, including SARS, MERS and Swine Flu. These achievements have positioned HKUMed at the forefront of global public health efforts against epidemics. By sharing our first-hand research findings, we aim to help others around the world in the fight against COVID-19,” remarked Professor Leo Poon Lit-man, Division Head of the Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences, School of Public Health, HKUMed.