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UCSB doctoral candidate develops rapid test that can detect Omicron variant

UC Santa Barbara

Amid a worsening COVID-19 surge, a UC Santa Barbara doctoral student has developed a breakthrough rapid test for the Omicron variant, which can also serve as a template for defense against future COVID-19 mutations.

When the Omicron variant first appeared, Santa Barbara County Public Health wanted to find a quick way to determine if samples in the community were omicron positive or not.

Professor Stu Feinstein, who teaches molecular biology at UCSB and is also a member of the Local Variant Task Team, said they couldn’t find any commercial test that could make that determination within hours instead of weeks.

“Omicron is brand-new, so commercial companies haven’t had time to develop a test," Feinstein said. "Everyone knows this is an important thing to be able to do, but there was just nothing available.”

So, Santa Barbara County Public Health and UCSB partnered together and decided to spend the time to develop such a rapid test —but they needed someone who could develop it.

That's where Zach Aralis, doctoral candidate in Professor Carolina Arias' lab, stepped in.

“Luckily, everything just kind of worked out," said Aralis. "It involved just dedicated computer work of going through and identifying sequences, and picking out the unique regions and finding the mutations we can target.”

It took a some long days, but eventually, Aralis made a breakthrough.

“I’m alone in a giant lab around the holidays and I was like, 'Yes!' It felt a little silly," Aralis said. "But when you're excited, it's hard not to get excited.”

Feinstein said what Aralis was able to figure out so quickly normally only happens in Hollywood movies.

“In this case, what Zach did in a few weeks not only produced really really interesting information, but it clearly had a very important impact in the real world," Feinstein said.

According to Feinstein, this test will aid health care professionals in determining which method is best in treating an Omicron-positive patient, since the different variants require different treatment.

Aralis said he’s ready to help refine this test for when the next variant appears.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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