UCD Covid-19 Response

The UCD Community is rising to the challenge posed by the global pandemic

UCD project to create a secure supply of critical reagents for Covid-19 testing funded under SFI Rapid Response

Lead Researchers: Dr Virginie Gautier, Professor Patrick Mallon, and Professor Gil Lee


SFI has announced funding for a UCD project to develop and supply necessary reagents and materials for SARS-CoV-2 testing for hospitals in the Ireland East Hospital Group. The local and reliable supply will help enable the country to meet its testing requirements and will provide important information for clinicians, planners and policy-makers.

Testing people for Covid-19 infection helps to diagnose patients, who can then isolate and receive treatment as needed. High rates of testing across the country will also be key in enabling Ireland to safely navigate its way out of the pandemic.

Testing involves taking a sample from the back of the nose and throat with a swab and putting that sample through a lab test (PCR) to see if the virus is present. However, testing has been disrupted by an unreliable supply of the high-quality reagents, solutions and chemicals needed.    


Problem solving

To detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19 infection, a very small number of RNA viral genomes must be isolated from the nasal swab. This is a stereotypical needle in the haystack problem, where there are a tiny number of viruses in among tens of thousands of much larger cells. 

The key is to use magnetic nanoparticles to capture the RNA from the complicated agglomeration that makes up the virus lysate, which includes proteins, lipids and other cellular components, and then use a powerful magnet to move and thus separate the magnetic nanoparticles.

This allows a series of solutions to be used to rinse the RNA-nanoparticle complex and then release the RNA in it into a buffer that can be used for reverse transcription and quantitative detection with the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).


What will the research project do?

The project is led by a multi-disciplinary team including an infectious disease clinician, molecular virologist and nanotechnologists at UCD. Using test samples from patients enrolled in the All-Ireland Infectious Diseases Cohort, they will test and make key reagents and supply them to the Ireland East Hospital Group, to ensure a timely and adequate supply of in vitro diagnostics.

That will include Lysis buffer which inactivates and bursts open the virus, superparamagnetic nanoparticles, rare-earth magnet arrays, and specific ‘probes’ to detect virus RNA.


Research Impact

Making reagents and materials in-house for SARS-CoV-2 virus testing will provide a secure and local supply for the Ireland East Hospital Group. 

The project will immediately provide reagents and materials to enable 40,000 tests for Covid-19 infection to hospitals in the eastern side of the country. Over time, the project will develop the capacity to deliver reagents and materials to enable 15,000 tests per day.     


Professor Gil Lee, Stokes Full Professor of Physical Chemistry at UCD, commented: “There are two types of tests that can be used to detect the virus that causes Covid-19. The rapid antibody tests have been available to the public and are used to confirm the symptoms of the disease.  Nucleic acid (NA) tests have only been used in hospitals up to this time. The NA test is the gold standard because it allows the virus to be detected more reliably and in individuals who do not show symptoms, so called, Super Carriers.

“This award will allow a world-class, multi-disciplinary team of biomedical researchers todevelop a local source of nanoparticles, buffers and advanced magnet separation devices to ensure that the RNA genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be isolated and detected to support the Irish healthcare system.  Unlike the systems currently in place in Ireland, this system is not automated which means that it is more flexible and not tied to a specific piece of plastic or swab.  It will allow teams of clinical scientists to provide up to 15% of Ireland’s NA diagnostics.    

“We would like to thank the SFI for their generous support for this work and their vision to support basic research in our laboratories over the last 10 years. We would also like to thank Amgen Ireland, Alpha Precision, and Magnostics for making it possible for us to rapidly prototype the V-REK system.”


Virginie Gautier, Principal Investigator in the UCD Centre for Experimental Pathogen Host Research (CEPHR), UCD School of Medicine, said: "This project is the result of concerted UCD collaborative efforts. I wish to thank the UCD Covid-19 Response Team, who have been instrumental in identifying the key expertise in the UCD research ecosystem and providing the support needed for the development of our interdisciplinary project.

“Importantly, the SFI Covid-19 Rapid response funding is fundamental to facilitate the successful delivery of this Covid-19 molecular diagnostic platform and to ensure the sustainability of Covid-19 diagnostics in the foreseeable future."'


Patrick Mallon, Consultant in Infectious Diseases in St Vincent’s Hospital, Professor of Microbial Diseases and Director of CEPHR, said: “This close collaboration between clinicians and scientists results from long term investment in Infectious Diseases research at UCD, focused on CEPHR.

“This infrastructure, linked to the All-Ireland Infectious Diseases Cohort, enables rapid application of research findings back to the front line services and will significantly contribute to the national response to Covid-19.”