A Norfolk laboratory is joining the race to roll out rapid-response coronavirus testing - and thinks demand could see requests of up to a million tests a week

Eastern Daily Press: Iceni Diagnostics products. Picture: Si BarberIceni Diagnostics products. Picture: Si Barber (Image: ©Si Barber. Moral rights asserted.)

Iceni Diagnostics, which is based at Norwich Research Park, has developed a virus detection test which can differentiate between normal flu and the coronavirus. On top of providing individuals and businesses confidence on whether or not they have the virus the differentiation could assist policy makers when it comes to making decisions this winter about further lockdown restrictions. The test works by identifying glycans, the presence of which are required by viruses to infect a body. However each virus access a different glycan, or employs a different method to obtain one, thus betraying its identity. Chairman of Iceni Diagnostics Berwyn Clarke explained how the test will work: “The test is a lateral flow test, so it looks a bit like a pregnancy test. On one end you put the sample - be it saliva, a nose swap or a throat swab - and potentially three lines will light up in red.

MORE: TUI announces flights to nine new holiday destinations from Norwich “The first line shows that the test has worked. The second line will show if it is a flu strain, the third will be if you have the coronavirus.” The test will be able to tell users which - if any - virus they have tested positive for within 15 minutes of it being administered. The test is differentiated from the rest of the market because its glycan method allows identifies the whole body of the virus and not just one aspect. “Think of a virus like a car. Most of the tests out there at the moment can identify a tyre or a steering wheel for example. This method identifies the whole car and not just part of it which is how it can differentiate between illnesses,” Mr Clarke said. Professor Rob Field, chief executive of Iceni Diagnostics explained further: “Our proprietary technology identifies intact virus, unlike most existing tests that identify viral genetic material.

“This crucial difference means that a positive result is a key indicator that live, active virus is present, giving a clear signal of current infection, whether the patient has started to show symptoms or not. “Significantly, the test may also identify asymptomatic carriers and thus limit virus spread.”

The team understands it is the only test of its kind in the world. “That we know of there are no other labs doing what we do. There are other labs looking at glycans but not employing it in the same way we are. This is for three reasons - the first that there is no other combination of the skillset we have here. “The second is that we have patented this type of test - so anyone making them would be infringing on Iceni’s IP. And the third is that there is a lot of fake tests out there so having the level of expertise and as a result trust is valued very highly.”

Eastern Daily Press: Iceni Diagnostics products.Picture: Si BarberIceni Diagnostics products.Picture: Si Barber (Image: ©Si Barber. Moral rights asserted.)

Having begun working on a test during lockdown the team of nine have now joined forces with BBI Solutions to produce clinical trial batches of their test. “Because we are a small team and we don’t specialise in the manufacturing of the tests it is time laborious. By joining forces with BBI they can produce the tests in a controlled environment for the next stage of trials. A number will be given to the NHS - which had the first batch of tests - and others will be given to care homes and private sector businesses. “We would be keen to talk to businesses about them using our testing because the more information we have about the success of the tests the better - and the business will have greater confidence in the health of staff or customers.”

MORE: Public flocks to pubs and restaurants ahead of lockdown The patented testing method has also been shared with Iceni’s distribution partners in the US. “There is the potential demand for the manufacture of a million tests a week. I don’t think the global manufacturing capability is there yet but it remains to be seen depending on how the next round of testing goes,” Mr Clarke said. “In the US all the healthcare is private, it’s a completely different situation to here in the UK. We’re also talking to a football league and a major supermarket chain on rolling it out. “We don’t have any preference over whether we work with the private or public sector. Obviously to work with the NHS and have it go through their procedures would be a massive success.”

The expansion of the work has been funded in part by a £50,000 grant from central government.

Iceni Diagnostics was one of the 800 companies which was awarded a chunk of a £20m funding pot for testing options. Mr Clarke said: “Since launching in 2015 we have never been in a negative cash balance which is unheard of in our field. The grants - both this and others we have had in the past - are crucial to continuing our work and hopefully will result in something which can bring about change in this pandemic.”

Eastern Daily Press: Making Covid-19 tests at Iceni Diagnostics. Picture: Si BarberMaking Covid-19 tests at Iceni Diagnostics. Picture: Si Barber (Image: Archant)