UCSF professor developing diagnostic test for new coronavirus

The lab at U.C. San Francisco's Mission Bay campus is a battleground in the race to understand and restrain the new coronavirus that first surfaced in Wuhan, China last month.

The lab director Dr. Charles Chiu is a professor of lab medicine and infectious disease. He says there is global concern because the virus mutated and jumped species from an animal to human in Wuhan, China and seems able to spread between humans. 

"It's because there are so many unknowns about this virus. We don't know where it came from, we don't know where it's headed. We don't really know characteristics of the virus and we don't have a treatment or vaccine," said Dr. Chiu.

Dr. Chiu says China and the Centers for Disease Control have been able to get the virus's genetic sequencing, from infected patients. Right now, testing can take as long as 24 hours to send samples to the CDC in Atlanta and get results. 

"We need to be able to test for the virus in a doctor's clinic, in an emergency room, or even potentially at the airport," said Dr. Chiu.

That's why the Chiu Lab is partnering with Mammoth Biosciences in South San Francisco to develop a faster way to test for the new coronavirus.

Mammoth Biosciences, which just received $45 million in new tech funding Thursday, specializes in what's called CRISPR-Cas technology that can identify genetic sequences.

"We are using CRISPR as a way to detect the needle in the haystack to be able to very rapidly identify whether or not a patient has been infected by looking for genetic sequence from the virus," said Dr. Chiu. he says his lab's proposed test could detect the new coronavirus in just 1-2 hours. It would involve a simple nasal swab. The sample would then be incubated and tested using a simple strip that would change color, similar to a pregnancy test. 

Dr. Chiu's lab is working with the state public health department and CDC to get access to any new coronavirus samples, which are needed to run tests on the procedure and gain approval from federal officials. 

He says overall, health officials' worldwide response has been better than the 2002 SARS coronavirus outbreak. 

"One of the advantages of having gone through SARS is I think our medical system, our public health infrastructure is much better prepared for this virus," said Dr. Chiu.

he says, with increasing globalization, more outbreaks could happen.

"It was estimated that there are probably 300,000 potential viruses out in animal and insect reservoirs that we just don't know about. So I think it's important that with this outbreak as with other outbreaks that we really take the lessons to heart," said Dr. Chiu.


Centers for Disease Control website on coronavirus

UCSF diagnostic lab

Mammoth Biosciences