Can His 10-Minute Coronavirus Test Help Stop the Next Pandemic?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the pandemics of tomorrow start in the livestock of today.
By Carly Stern
Academics are familiar with the challenge of trying to get the general public to care about a niche issue or research question to which they’ve doggedly dedicated their careers. But amid a coronavirus pandemic, Suresh Neethirajan has suddenly found his scientific focus — developing diagnostic tools for flu strains in animals — to be a matter of urgent global concern.
For nearly a decade, Neethirajan has been tinkering away to develop a device that instantly detects avian flu strains in poultry. As the 39-year-old — who has family roots in agriculture — watched people use home-based diabetes tests, he began wondering why there wasn’t an affordable rapid test for avian flu detection. He rolled up his sleeves and got cracking on a design solution, later shifting focus to other coronavirus strains, such as the one that emerged from animals (likely bats) and has swept the globe in recent months.
These days, more than just the scientific community is talking about the importance of tracing outbreak sources. “The speed at which we can positively identify a pathogen has a huge impact on the management and control of the disease within populations,” says Tim Nelson, an agricultural research administrator who works on behalf of farmers and farmer groups. This problem is playing out at scale with efforts to control COVID-19 in humans. “The situation is exactly the same in the livestock and poultry industries when highly contagious diseases enter the network,” Nelson says.
Those are the bottlenecks Neethirajan is trying to tackle: time and cost.
Like blood samples, swabs from poultry being tested for viruses are collected and shipped to labs, which usually takes at least two days. The delay associated with transport, processing and returning of diagnostic tests has consequences — administrative, financial and human. U.S. agriculture took an estimated $3.3 billion hit in the 2015 avian flu epidemic. “Confirmed diagnosis at the source would significantly reduce the cost of disease,” Nelson says.
Those are the bottlenecks Neethirajan is trying to tackle: time and cost. He’s done so by creating a device employing nanotechnology that uses treated cotton thread to indicate the presence or absence of coronavirus in poultry — almost like a portable lab on a stick. The device, made of cotton, resembles a fork with two handles and three tines. These tests aren’t available on the market yet but will likely be around $5 per test and possibly less, depending on production scale, according to Neethirajan.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — in red — compared with American losses in modern wars and recent crises.)
Here’s how it works: After an oral or nasal swab or a blood sample is obtained from the chicken, it’s placed on the thread. Within roughly 10 minutes, the thread will turn red if the coronavirus is present — and green if it’s not. The degree of exposure corresponds with fluorescence, which can be determined under a fluorescent microscope, through a phone or plain sight, according to the peer-reviewed research.
At this point the idea is to detect a virus early, quickly and cheaply in animals before it spreads to humans. Neethirajan’s creation has thus far been used on farm animals only, so it remains to be seen how it could be adapted for human trials — which he hasn’t begun yet. But if it’s modified effectively, this kind of tool could usher in a shift from a “reactive to a proactive approach” to virus containment, says Neethirajan. The FDA recently approved a 15-minute coronavirus test for people, but the platform weighs about seven pounds and is administered in doctor’s offices, rather than Neethirajan’s simple solution that functionally resembles a pregnancy test.
A middle child, Neethirajan grew up in India in a low-income family. He and his siblings were first-generation college students; his sister studied computer science, while his brother chose medicine. He zipped off to study biological and biosystems engineering at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, where he later earned his Ph.D. Outside of academia, Neethirajan loves natural environments and systems: Birdwatching, hiking and learning to fly airplanes bring him a sense of peace.
His scientific curiosity drew him across the globe: Neethirajan spent a year on a research fellowship studying agriculture and food research and worked at a lab in Tennessee before becoming an assistant professor at the University of Guelph, in Canada, for eight years. He’s been a bioengineering consultant since 2018. The way his work reaches into “nooks and crannies” of the world to bring him into “conversations with people across continents and cultures” has continued to surprise him, he says. (It’s also proved a creative muse: When asked about how the pandemic has ramped up his research work, Neethirajan replies with several haiku.)
He was a genuine and straightforward professor who always meant what he said and had a knack for explaining complex topics in intuitive ways, says Steven Panesar, a former student at the University of Guelph who worked with Neethirajan for his master’s. Nelson praises Neethirajan’s unconventional thinking and zeal. “Once he gets a problem in his mind that he wants to address, he’s tenacious, like a dog with a bone — won’t let it go until he has a solution.”
Still, Neethirajan hasn’t arrived at a solution yet to serve the human world amid the COVID-19 outbreak — though his colorful cotton detection system could prove useful in a pandemic of the future. A key challenge Neethirajan must contend with is specificity. When testing for one type of virus, others in the body can behave similarly, creating the possibility for false positives and negatives, Panesar explains.
Neethirajan, for one, is keen to get out of the barn and start modifying his creation for people — with the endgame of commercializing the tool, which could later be adapted for African swine fever and other viruses, he says. The goal, as he sees it, is to create simple diagnostic tests that can reduce the risk points to a health care system that’s now overwhelmed.
The countries that have best contained COVID-19 implemented mass testing and early isolation of confirmed cases. If Neethirajan’s feathered solution can eventually work for humans on a mass scale, it would give the best window yet into what the world is facing.