Israel will soon be able to test hundreds of thousands daily, scientist claims

Naomi Habib of Hebrew University says her team has developed a streamlined process for mass testing; Haifa’s Technion announces new kit for home coronavirus checks

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Within a matter of weeks, Israel will have the technology to boost daily coronavirus testing to hundreds of thousands of people, according to a Hebrew University innovator who is developing new lab protocols.

Dr. Naomi Habib said that her team is developing a method that will enable batches of 40,000 test samples to be examined simultaneously using a sequencing machine. “This can open up the possibility of mass testing all over the world,” she said.

“I strongly believe that Hebrew University will soon have the technology to do sequencing-based testing that will enable us to test hundreds of thousands of people a day,” Habib told The Times of Israel.

Israel’s record so far, set on Monday, is only 13,342 tests in a day.

Habib voiced confidence that other teams around the world will make similar breakthroughs, saying that with her method in the pipeline along with others, people can be optimistic that large-scale testing will help get the world back to routine. She expects it to be used in various ways, including spot checks in the general population to identify high-risk areas and prevent the second-wave scenario that is increasingly worrying health officials.

But she said that while the science will soon be in place, it will prove worthless if politicians don’t commit funds to implementing it. “The scientists will deliver the technology, and we need policymakers to follow,” she said.

There are two main lab processes needed to deal with coronavirus samples, and Habib’s lab is working to simplify both of them. The sequencing machines are intended for the second lab stage, when the ribonucleic acid (RNA) that has been extracted from test samples and which holds the key to test results, is analyzed.

But before the RNA can be analyzed it needs to be extracted from test samples. Habib’s team has also come up with a solution which she says can boost the capacity of labs for performing the extraction by up to ten times. It uses tiny magnetic beads instead of chemicals to extract the RNA. 

A major impetus for this magnet solution was the fact that difficulty obtaining the compounds was slowing Israel’s testing operation, and Habib’s team wanted to make it resilient to international shortages.

Naomi Habib, professor at Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science (Moshe Wolcowitz)

The magnet solution is due to be implemented at a Hebrew University lab that processes tests for Hadassah Hospital, and Habib said that the Health Ministry has expressed interest in rolling it out nationally.

The norm in labs currently is to place each RNA sample, after extraction, in a separate test tube for analysis. Habib’s method involves combining samples into batches that can be examined using a sequencing machine — and she said it will need just a hundredth of the chemical compounds compared to current processes.

Habib, professor at Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science, stressed that sequencing technology isn’t new but “needs to be adapted to the unique challenges of clinical coronavirus samples.” Her team is working on “nitty gritty” details that will allow existing technology to be deployed to batch test for coronavirus.

She said: “A sequencing machine can simultaneously read samples from 40,000 people if you prepare it in the right way. The technology is there and we are finding a method to combine samples while keeping them sensitive.”

The idea of assessing tests using sequencing is increasingly discussed in scientific circles. Moshe Dessau, a virology expert at Bar Ilan University who is not connected to the Hebrew University team, told The Times of Israel that while he doesn’t know how many samples could be examined at once, the idea is sound.

“If you have proof of concept that you can detect the virus from a small amount of RNA, [sequencing] can be a good way to detect the virus,” he said.

Habib’s optimism comes as Israel is still falling far short of the target for 30,000 tests daily set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and amid mounting pressure for a major scale up in testing. On Wednesday, public policy analyst Prof. Dan Ben-David called for Israel to become the first country in the world to test the entire population.

Habib said that even before sequencing methods are introduced, her team’s work can increase Israel’s testing capacity with its protocol for streamlining the RNA extraction process.

Habib said that the Ministry of Health “is interested in integrating our [RNA extraction] technology in to a unified test that will be applied across the country.” She said that officials were “desperately looking for a solution and happy about our solution.” A Health Ministry source told The Times of Israel that the ministry is aware of the Habib’s extraction method but declined to comment on possibility of deploying it.

Extracting the RNA is time-consuming and has generally relied until now on specially produced test kits or reagents. But for years Habib and another professor, Nir Friedman, have been using tiny magnetic beads to extract RNA for their research — as have other academics elsewhere — and say they have tweaked the process for coronavirus tests.

She said that based on assessments of the Hebrew University lab that will implement her magnet protocol first, it will increase the number of RNA samples that can be extracted daily by four to ten times, “and save an incredible amount of money.”

In a separate development, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology announced on Thursday that it is producing a home test that can diagnose the coronavirus within an hour. “We developed a protocol for a test that requires only a saliva sample, reagents and a thermal cup,” said Prof. Naama Geva-Zatorsky from the Technion’s Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine

Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky (Photo credit: Julien Chatelin, CAPA Pictures)
Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky (Photo credit: Julien Chatelin, CAPA Pictures)

“One only needs to immerse the saliva sample in a test tube that contains the reactive material and then in the thermal cup with hot water. If the color of the reaction changes, that indicates the presence of the coronavirus. The result is obtained within an hour and does not require lab analysis.”

Geva-Zatorsky said that her team has developed a working test kit and is now trying to improve its sensitivity. She said that the test isn’t intended to replace conventional lab-assessed tests, but said it will be suitable for use at entrances to hospitals, workplaces, nursing homes, airports and in drive-through facilities.

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