- Companies from Twente and the UT are collaborating with other companies and knowledge institutions from all over the Netherlands in the Viralert platform.
- Knowledge and expertise are brought together to fight against the coronavirus
- Viralert is working on the development of so-called rapid tests
Nineteen partners from the business community and several knowledge institutions from all over the Netherlands have already joined the Viralert initiative, including the University of Twente (UT). The platform was created by Ronny van ’t Oever, director of Twente company Micronit, and by Per Slycke, former co-founder of Enschede company Xsens. Micronit is a company from Enschede that develops microfluidic chips. These chips are used in tests to determine whether someone has corona and in research into the virus. Other partners from Twente in this partnership include Demcon, an expert in mechatronics and robotics. They have become known during the corona crisis for their respiratory equipment, among other things. LioniX is also a company from Twente and specialises in photonics and micro-nanotechnology. The strength of this platform comes from the bundling of different organisations, each with their specialisation and discipline.
“We are willing to share and to go for the scenario in which we work together efficiently and move forward quickly, instead of going for the scenario that is the best for us economically. We have agreed on this within Viralert, and we are committed to it”, says Arne Leinse, director of LioniX International. All partners within the initiative are prioritising the social importance. All other interests are subject to this. “Everything within Viralert is about collaboration. The Netherlands has a vibrant biomedical industry with an enormous potential for innovation. It is only logical to work together during a crisis such as this one, and to develop something that helps”, says Ronny van ’t Oever. Viralert hopes that the government will see that these types of partnerships are worth investing in. “At the moment, the government is still too focused on scaling up existing tests, instead of developing innovative rapid tests”, says Arne Leinse.
Developing rapid tests is crucial, not just for now, but also for fighting against future pandemics. Existing technologies from Viralert’s partners can be combined to develop them. Ronny van ’t Oever sees it as bringing puzzle pieces together. With the current tests, it generally takes a day or more before a patient is informed whether he or she has corona. In the meantime, this person can still spread the virus. Viralert wants to develop tests that are faster and easier to use. It should become clear whether someone is infected, immediately after taking a small amount of mucus or saliva. Arne Leinse describes the importance of this: “This means you do not have to paralyse the entire economy as soon as you have a pandemic. For example, if there is ever a COVID-24, you check 100% of the incoming flights at airports. If someone carries the virus, they go into quarantine. It will be much easier to keep those outbreaks local and in control. You do need very cheap rapid tests for this.” In other words, current tests are not sufficient for fighting a pandemic. According to Micronit, the tests need to be highly sensitive, so that it is possible to detect whether someone is carrying the virus at an early stage.
Cooperation is not only beneficial for this purpose; it is necessary. “You need two things for these kinds of innovations. The first is a sensor that measures change, and the second is to make sure that the sensor only shows change when the virus is there. That is why Viralert also has involved parties such as Surfix and Wageningen University because they are experts in biochemistry. You need all those disciplines to make a good sensor. You will never get a good product if you put all these parties to work individually”, says Arne Leinse from LioniX.
Viralert does not only look at the current and past situations, but it also anticipates the future. “We are also working on an antibody test to see who has had the virus and is therefore possibly immune. We work on this with partners that have experience with this type of testing. The balance will slowly shift from focusing on determining if someone has the virus, to determining if someone has had the virus. It will become increasingly important to determine whether people are immune and can return to the economy”, says Brigitte Bruins, R&D scientist at Micronit.
Much discussion about corona apps has already taken place in the Netherlands. For example, Marcel Roorda of the Doop company has developed an app, and UT professor Peter-Paul Verbeek has diligently highlighted the ethical side of the story. Viralert has also submitted a proposal for a part of the app on Tuesday, the 14th of April. They remain alert to developments in this area. Such an app and rapid tests go hand in hand. If you receive a notification that you may be infected, you can immediately take a test and indicate in the app whether or not you are infected. It would reduce the spread of the virus even further, even faster.