The motherboard of a COVID-19 rapid testing device that UF Health researchers helped develop is seen here. (Credit: Houndstoothe Analytics)

A COVID-19 testing device can detect coronavirus infection in as little as 30 seconds as sensitively and accurately as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The device, researchers said, could transform public health officials’ ability to quickly detect and respond to the coronavirus — or the next pandemic.

Like PCR tests, the device is 90 percent accurate, researchers said, with the same sensitivity, according to a recent peer-reviewed study. The handheld apparatus is powered by a 9-V battery and uses an inexpensive test strip, similar to those used in blood glucose meters, with coronavirus antibodies attached to a gold-plated film at its tip. The strip is placed on the tongue to collect a tiny saliva sample.

The strip is then inserted into a reader connected to a circuit board with the brains of the device. If someone is infected, the coronavirus in the saliva binds with the antibodies and begins a dance of sorts as they are prodded by two electrical pulses processed by a special transistor. A higher concentration of coronavirus changes the electrical conductance of the sample. That, in turn, alters the voltage of the electrical pulses.

The product can be constructed for less than $50, Esquivel-Upshaw said. In contrast, PCR test equipment can cost thousands. The research team also is studying its ability to detect specific proteins that could be used to diagnose other illnesses, including cancer, a heart attack and immune health.