In India recently, there is all the hype in mainstream media about a probable 30 second rapid COVID-19 detection system by collaboration of DRDO with the Israeli military R&D.

Reportedly, there are four developments that are planned to be tested:

  • Online voice test along with Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Breath analyser based on Terahertz waves along with AI
  • Isothermal test using Saliva samples and
  • Polyamino acid test

Of these two tests can be justify the claims of rapid diagnosis, they are online voice test and breath analyser along with AI. They are proposed to be giving results in 30 seconds and 60 seconds respectively. The isothermal tests by Kirdod and polyamino acid test kit by rapid diagnostics are already known and used technology and takes in 45 minutes to about an hour to produce results. The isothermal tests are RT-LAMP PCR technique. This does not require the RT PCR machines in laboratory to process rather processed on spot with simple equipment. Similarly, the poly amino acids test is also a point of care tests. Apart from the portability and significant reduction in time compared to the conventional RT-PCR method still the standardisation and accuracy with be mains concerns. Kirdod adds that it will be processing the results of the isothermal tests (RT-LAMP) using AI instead of a doctor and thereby reducing the output time. The polyamino acid test is not a new concept and used in the detection of various disease diagnosis. So the actually claimed rapid tests that detect Covid-19 are as follows:

Online Voice test combined with AI.

This technology for detecting COVID-19 using recorded voice samples was developed by Vocalis Health, an American-Israeli start-up. They propose there is particular voice fingerprint (vocal biomarkers) which can be detected when a person is affected by Covid-19. Vocalis Health was setup under $9 million dollar funding as a merger between Verbal and Healthymize on December 2019. Vocalis health was primarily focussed on diagnosing voice affecting diseases such as cardiac and respiratory diseases. Now it is has shifted the focus in Covid-19 diagnosis. There is no biological evidence behind this approach except for one study very recently. It showed diagnosis of 5 people using previously recorded interviews and it concludes saying the need for large amounts of such data. The concept intended to be used by Vocalis is to collect as many samples as possible and then by analysing big data patterns for vocal biomarkers using AI based platform. This concept is still in prototype stage and would require big data for the proof of concept to be established. Thereby the company Vocalis can use this for diagnosis in future. For the data to have any significance the concept requires large sample numbers. India with high number of Covid-19 infected people give a good ground for the company and the military to collect samples.



Breathanalyser based on Terahertz waves along with AI

Another proposed rapid Covid-19 test to be experimented on people in India is a breath analyser. It uses terahertz (THz) waves for the detection of the virus. This technology was developed by the company TERA Group with the help of Israel Ministry of Defense R&D. The concept here relies on use of Ultra high Frequency waves (THz) to detect the virus. The THz waves are a part of electromagnetic spectrum that is placed between Microwave and infrared wave spectrum.  This technology is very young and in mostly development stage and requires a large number of patients to validate it. With the rapid push of this technology, there are also bio security concerns regarding the use of THz waves in diagnostics. Upon exposure, these waves can cause various side effects and may probably produce health hazards. Some mice studies on its skin showed the THz waves can cause inflammation responses and also interfering with wound healing. Even low level THz waves can cause variations at molecular level shown to cause DNA damages, gene expression changes and protein changes. Although the level of THz waves used in diagnosis devices might be less, still the safety of THz wave based diagnosis is still not proved.

As said by the Israeli health minister, the plan by Israeli R&D is to collect tens of thousands of samples within a span of 10 days for analysis using AI. We are not sure what about how the consent will be obtained from such huge number of patients and normal people as control group. With no transparency from Indian government officials, most Indians might not even understand for what their data being used for in the name of Covid-19 testing. This raises huge ethical concerns on privacy issues, how the samples will be used and for what purpose will they be used. The Israeli government was even recently accused for breaching the privacy of Israeli people in the name of surveillance for Covid-19. We also see the involvement of start-up companies who aspire to bring the technology mainstream not only for Covid-19 diagnosis but also for other diseases too for which they would need large amount of data too. The primary question that should be asked is, are the samples of Indians being collected as a part of large scale experimentation without any information data privacy and compromised biosafety? This is also being done based on no substantial amount biological evidences till date. We know that the data obtained from people in this day and age has become a commodity. Hence this might only benefit the companies involved in collecting the big data on health of people with the help of governments.

Prem Anand Murugan is currently a PhD student at IIT Kanpur.



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