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SMART and NTU Singapore develop a quick test kit to determine a person’s immunity against COVID-19 and its variants

Singapore, 22 September 2022 – A team of scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise…

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Singapore, 22 September 2022 – A team of scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a quick test kit that can tell if a person has immunity against COVID-19 and its variants, based on the antibodies detected in a blood sample. 

Credit: NTU Singapore

Singapore, 22 September 2022 – A team of scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a quick test kit that can tell if a person has immunity against COVID-19 and its variants, based on the antibodies detected in a blood sample. 

Different from ART test kits – which look for the presence of viral proteins produced during a COVID-19 infection to determine if a person is infected – this rapid point-of-care test kit is a serology test that measures antibodies made by the patient. It requires a drop of blood and takes just 10 minutes to show results, as compared to the 24 to 72 hours required for conventional laboratory testing. 

The test kit detects the levels of neutralising antibodies against SARS-COV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and its variants such as Delta and Omicron, and can be easily adapted for new variants of concern and other diseases in the future.

Using a paper-based assay that is coated with chemicals that bind to antibodies in the blood sample, the test kit is low-cost, fast and has up to 93 per cent accuracy. It paves the way for personalised vaccination strategies, where people are only given vaccinations and booster shots when necessary, depending on their variance in antibody levels and immune response.

The findings were published in the scientific journal Microbiology Spectrum by the joint team led by SMART’s Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Interdisciplinary Research Group (IRG) and NTU’s School of Biological Sciences, in collaboration with Singapore’s National University Hospital (NUH) and National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The work is funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) programme. It is also supported by Singapore’s National Medical Research Council (NMRC), under its COVID-19 Research Fund, and National Health Innovation Centre (NHIC), under its COVID-19 Gap funding grant.

Fast and accurate tests to overcome challenges

Having an accurate and rapid serology test can enable governments and healthcare organisations to effectively manage limited vaccine resources, and address vaccine hesitancy, particularly concerning multiple booster doses.

Vaccination has been an integral component of public health strategies to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, with 12.6 billion doses across 184 countries administered as of 9 Sep 2022. Vaccines reduced the COVID-19 death toll by 63 per cent within the first year of their rollout, preventing an estimated 19.8 million deaths worldwide, according to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health (MOH) estimated in February 2022 that COVID-19 vaccines had prevented 8,000 deaths during the wave of the Delta variant in 2021, as well as preventing an estimated 33,000 severe cases and 112,000 hospitalisations.

However, a clinical study by the joint research team has shown that the protection offered by currently available vaccines steadily declines over three months, with varying degrees of decline across individuals. The study showed that after three months of a booster shot, the neutralising antibody (NAb) response against wildtype and Delta still remained high at medians of 91.8 per cent, while medians against Beta and Gamma had dropped to 82.7 and for Omicron, a large drop to 70.7 per cent, down from 92.9 per cent.

The emergence of novel variants with much higher transmissibility than the wild-type virus – such as Delta and Omicron – has exacerbated the issue of using mRNA vaccines developed based on the wildtype virus to boost immunity, especially when some current vaccines are showing reduced protection against these novel variants of concern (VoC). 

In addition, vaccine hesitancy remains among limited subsets of the population, where people are wary of taking the vaccine or booster shots due to fear of side effects, further compounding the difficulty in employing a widespread vaccination strategy to build herd immunity.

To address vaccine hesitancy and efficacy of vaccination against novel variants, a personalised vaccination approach could be more effective, one which offers booster doses to individuals assessed to be more at risk, such as healthcare workers and the elderly. 

For a personalised approach to be effective, healthcare workers need to be able to quickly evaluate the level of NAb response against variants at the individual level, using an easy-to-use point-of-care test kit in clinics, hospitals or vaccination centres.

Corresponding author of the paper, Professor Peter Preiser, Co-Lead Principal Investigator at SMART AMR and Associate Vice President for Biomedical and Life Sciences at NTU Singapore said: “Our team’s work in the development of a rapid test kit has given us valuable insights into vaccine effectiveness and protection longevity. Our study proves that our new test kit can be a powerful tool, allowing healthcare organisations to screen people and determine their vaccination needs, especially against the current and upcoming variants. This will help allay some people’s fears that they will be ‘over-vaccinated with a booster’, since the results will inform them accurately if they are well-protected against COVID-19 or not.”

Dr Hadley Sikes, SMART AMR Principal Investigator, Associate Professor at MIT and co-corresponding author of the paper added, “Over the course of the pandemic, several large studies have shown that NAb levels against the dominant variant at the time of the study are a reliable indicator of protection from infection. Some segments of the population have low tolerance for risk of infection. The test kit we developed can provide valuable, individualised information about how quickly or how slowly a person’s antibodies levels have fallen, allowing them to stay informed of their health and, whenever required, get a necessary booster dose to protect themselves.”

Proven effectiveness of antibody test kit

In their research paper, the team describes a clinical study of their cellulose pulled-down virus neutralisation test kit (cpVNT), a neutralising antibody blood test designed to assess an individual’s immunoprotective profile against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.

With a drop of finger prick blood, the test kit can evaluate an individual’s neutralising antibody level against a specific COVID-19 variant within 10 minutes, making this an efficient, low-cost, and easy-to-use tool that will enable large-scale testing and can be widely deployed anywhere as part of a personalised vaccination strategy.

The test reveals the individual’s level of neutralising antibodies, which can then inform a person when a booster should be taken, and how cautious they should be about potential transmission before it is taken. 

It can be administered by a layperson without medical training and does not require any specialised laboratory equipment, paving the way for large-scale testing of vulnerable subsets of the population such as the elderly. 

Co-first author of the paper and former Postdoctoral Associate at SMART AMR Hoi Lok Cheng said, “This is an exciting breakthrough for us, and a continuation of our long-running work to develop efficient, low-cost, and easy-to-use NAb tests to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. As a quantitative test that can detect NAb levels specific to key variants such as Delta and Omicron, the cpVNT has given us valuable insights into the effectiveness of various vaccines vis-à-vis variants of concern. This test kit will also prove integral to a more personalised vaccination approach that will benefit higher-risk individuals such as the elderly and healthcare workers. Individuals from these communities can have their immuno-protective profile assessed on a regular basis via the cpVNT, allowing them to know when a booster dose may be appropriate or necessary. Furthermore, this test can be easily adapted to test for novel SARS-CoV-2 variants that may emerge in the future.”

This research builds on years-long body of work by the SMART team. In a paper published in the medical and public health journal Communications Medicine, the team laid out the foundation for a cellulose-based vertical-flow test to detect neutralising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. 

A separate paper published in premier chemical engineering journal Bioengineering and Translational Medicine discussed the test’s effectiveness against other methods such as the pseudovirus-based virus neutralisation test (pVNT) and surrogate virus neutralisation test (sVNT), with favourable results. 

Using clinical samples (including both whole blood and plasma) and the World Health Organisation International Standard and Reference Panel for anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody, the team established that a whole-blood test such as the cpVNT could be as informative as a plasma-only test. 

As plasma- or serum-based tests require laboratory equipment to process the blood sample as well as higher quantities of blood samples to be taken, the cpVNT is therefore more resource-efficient and less invasive. 

Furthermore, the cpVNT’s viability demonstrates that neutralising antibody and point-of-care tests can be successfully performed using such a format and protocol – paving the way for further development and innovation of this platform to tackle other diseases.

Further development of the test kit is underway to meet the necessary regulatory approvals and manufacturing standards for public use. The team that has developed the tests at SMART has also spun off a biotech startup, Thrixen, which is developing the test into a commercially ready product.

Key development of the rapid test was done at SMART AMR together with NTU scientists, who helped in the design of the study, providing specific reagent supplies and clinical sample collections. NUH and NCID had provided clinical sample supplies and consultation on medical use of the test, while MIT supervised the project. 

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We can turn to popular culture for lessons about how to live with COVID-19 as endemic

As COVID-19 transitions from a pandemic to an endemic, apocalyptic science-fiction and zombie movies contain examples of how to adjust to the new norm…

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An endemic means that COVID-19 is still around, but it no longer disrupts everyday life. (Shutterstock)

In 2021, conversations began on whether the COVID-19 pandemic will, or even can, end. As a literary and cultural theorist, I started looking for shifts in stories about pandemics and contagion. It turns out that several stories also question how and when a pandemic becomes endemic.


Read more: COVID will likely shift from pandemic to endemic — but what does that mean?


The 2020 film Peninsula, a sequel to the Korean zombie film, Train to Busan, ends with a group of survivors rescued and transported to a zombie-free Hong Kong. In it, Jooni (played by Re Lee) spent her formative years living through the zombie epidemic. When she is rescued, she responds to being informed that she’s “going to a better place” by admitting that “this place wasn’t bad either.”

Jooni’s response points toward the shift in contagion narratives that has emerged since the spread of COVID-19. This shift marks a rejection of the push-for-survival narratives in favour of something more indicative of an endemic.

Found within

Contagion follows a general cycle: outbreak, epidemic, pandemic and endemic. The determinants of each stage rely upon the rate of spread within a specified geographic region.

Etymologically, the word “endemic” has its origins with the Greek words én and dēmos, meaning “in the people.” Thus, it refers to something that is regularly found within a population.

Infectious disease physician Stephen Parodi asserts that an endemic just means that a disease, while still prevalent within a population, no longer disrupts our daily lives.

Similarly, genomics and viral evolution researcher Aris Katzourakis argues that endemics occur when infection rates are static — neither rising nor falling. Because this stasis occurs differently with each situation, there is no set threshold at which a pandemic becomes endemic.

Not all diseases reach endemic status. And, if endemic status is reached, it does not mean the virus is gone, but rather that things have become “normal.”

Survival narratives

We’re most likely familiar with contagion narratives. After all, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, was the most watched film on Canadian Netflix in March 2020. Conveniently, this was when most Canadian provinces went into lockdown during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A clip from the film Contagion showing the disease spreading throughout the world.

In survival-based contagion narratives, characters often discuss methods for survival and generally refer to themselves as survivors. Contagion chronicles the transmission of a deadly virus that is brought from Hong Kong to the United States. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is tasked with tracing its origins and finding a cure. The film follows Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), who is immune, as he tries to keep his daughter safe in a crumbling Minneapolis.

Ultimately, a vaccine is successfully synthesized, but only after millions have succumbed to the virus.

Like many science fiction and horror films that envision some sort of apocalyptic end, Contagion focuses on the basic requirements for survival: shelter, food, water and medicine.

However, it also deals with the breakdown of government systems and the violence that accompanies it.

A “new” normal

In contrast, contagion narratives that have turned endemic take place many years after the initial outbreak. In these stories, the infected population is regularly present, but the remaining uninfected population isn’t regularly infected.

A spin-off to the zombie series The Walking Dead takes place a decade after the initial outbreak. In the two seasons of The Walking Dead: World Beyond (2020-2021) four young protagonists — Hope (Alexa Mansour), Iris (Aliyah Royale), Silas (Hal Cumpston) and Elton (Nicolas Cantu) — represent the first generation to come of age within the zombie-infested world.

The four youth spent their formative years in an infected world — similar to Jooni in Peninsula. For these characters, zombies are part of their daily lives, and their constant presence is normalized.

The trailer for the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead: World Beyond.

The setting in World Beyond has electricity, helicopters and modern medicine. Characters in endemic narratives have regular access to shelter, food, water and medicine, so they don’t need to resort to violence over limited resources. And notably, they also don’t often refer to themselves as survivors.

Endemic narratives acknowledge that existing within an infected space alongside a virus is not necessarily a bad thing, and that not all inhabitants within infected spaces desire to leave. It is rare in endemic narratives for a character to become infected.

Instead of going out on zombie-killing expeditions in the manner that occurs frequently in the other Walking Dead stories, the characters in World Beyond generally leave the zombies alone. They mark the zombies with different colours of spray-paint to chronicle what they call “migration patterns.”

The zombies have therefore just become another species for the characters to live alongside — something more endemic.

The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead (2015-), Z Nation (2014-18), and many other survival-based stories seem to return to the past. In contrast, endemic narratives maintain a present and sometimes even future-looking approach.

Learning from stories

According to film producer and media professor Mick Broderick, survival stories maintain a status quo. They seek a “nostalgically yearned-for less-complex existence.” It provides solace to imagine an earlier, simpler time when living through a pandemic.

However, the shift from survival to endemic in contagion narratives provides us with many important possibilities. The one I think is quite relevant right now is that it presents us with a way of living with contagion. After all, watching these characters survive a pandemic helps us imagine that we can too.

Krista Collier-Jarvis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Has the pandemic changed our personalities? New research suggests we’re less open, agreeable and conscientious

COVID-related changes in our personalities could go some way to explaining the widespread decrease in wellbeing.

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Lightspring/Shutterstock

For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities.

A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests the COVID pandemic has triggered much greater shifts in personality than we would expect to have seen naturally over this period. In particular, the researchers found that people were less extroverted, less open, less agreeable and less conscientious in 2021 and 2022 compared with before the pandemic.


Read more: How we discovered that VR can profile your personality


This study included more than 7,000 participants from the US, aged between 18 and 109, who were assessed before the pandemic (from 2014 onwards), early in the pandemic in 2020, and then later in the pandemic in 2021 or 2022.

At each time point, participants completed the “Big Five Inventory”. This assessment tool measures personality on a scale across five dimensions: extroversion versus introversion, agreeableness versus antagonism, conscientiousness versus lack of direction, neuroticism versus emotional stability, and openness versus closedness to experience.

There weren’t many changes between pre-pandemic and 2020 personality traits. However, the researchers found significant declines in extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness in 2021/2022 compared with before the pandemic. These changes were akin to a decade of normal variation, suggesting the trauma of the COVID pandemic had accelerated the natural process of personality change.


Read more: Languishing: what to do if you're feeling restless, apathetic or empty


Interestingly, younger adults’ personalities changed the most in the study. They showed marked declines in agreeableness and conscientiousness, and a significant increase in neuroticism in 2021/2022 compared with pre-pandemic. This may be due in part to social anxiety when emerging back into society, having missed out on two years of normality.

Personality and wellbeing

Many of us became more health-conscious during the pandemic, for example by eating better and doing more exercise. A lot of us sought whatever social connections we could find virtually, and tried to refocus our attention on psychological, emotional and intellectual growth – for example, by practising mindfulness or picking up new hobbies.

Nonetheless, mental health and wellbeing decreased significantly. This makes sense given the drastic changes we went through.

Notably, personality significantly impacts our wellbeing. For example, people who report high levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness or extroversion are more likely to experience the highest level of wellbeing.

So the personality changes detected in this study may go some way to explaining the decrease in wellbeing we’ve seen during the pandemic.

A young woman looks out the window.
Personality changed the most for younger people. fizkes/Shutterstock

If we look more closely, the pandemic appears to have negatively affected the following areas:

  • our ability to express sympathy and kindness towards others (agreeableness);

  • our capacity to be open to new concepts and willing to engage in novel situations (openness);

  • our tendency to seek out and enjoy other people’s company (extraversion);

  • our desire to strive towards our goals, do tasks well or take responsibilities towards others seriously (conscientiousness).

All of these traits influence our interaction with the environment around us, and as such, may have played a role in our wellbeing decline. For example, working from home may have left us feeling demotivated and as though our career was going nowhere (lower conscientiousness). This in turn may have affected our wellbeing by making us feel more irritable, depressed or anxious.

What next?

Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events. In other words, we learn from our life experiences and this subsequently impacts our personality. As we age, we generally see increases in self-confidence, self-control and emotional stability.

However, participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change. This is understandable given that we faced an extended period of difficulties, including constraints on our freedoms, lost income and illness. All these experiences have evidently changed us – and our personalities.


Read more: Personality can predict who's a rule-follower and who flouts COVID-19 social distancing guidelines


This study provides us with some very useful insights into the impacts of the pandemic on our psyche. These impacts may subsequently influence many aspects of our lives, such as wellbeing.

Knowledge allows us to make choices. So you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you.

Any changes may well have protected you during the height of the pandemic. However, it’s worth asking yourself how useful these changes are now that the acute phase of the pandemic is behind us. Do they still serve you well, or could you try to rethink your perspective?

Jolanta Burke does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Coalesce lands fresh capital to transform data at ‘enterprise scale’

Coalesce is a startup that offers data transformation tools geared mainly toward enterprise customers. Today the company closed a $26 million Series A…

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Coalesce is a startup that offers data transformation tools geared mainly toward enterprise customers. Today the company closed a $26 million Series A funding round led by Emergence Capital with participation from 11.2 Capital and GreatPoint Ventures, bringing the company’s total raised to $31.92 million. Co-founder and CEO Armon Petrossian tells TechCrunch that the cash will be put toward building out Coalesce’s product and ecosystem.

Petrossian met Coalesce’s other co-founder, Satish Jayanthi, at WhereScape, where the two were responsible for solving data warehouse problems for large organizations. (In computing, a “data warehouse” refers to systems used for reporting and data analysis — analysis usually germane to business intelligence.) Their clients often encountered challenges in transforming data, Petrossian says, as well as documenting these transformations in a way that made intuitive sense.

To Petrossian’s point, a survey commissioned by data integration platform Matillion found that as much as 57% of the time involved in analytics projects is spent tackling data transformation hurdles. Moreover, 75% percent of data teams feel that outdated migration and maintenance processes are costing them productivity and capital.

“Companies have been struggling with data transformation and optimization since the early days of data warehousing, and with the enormous growth of the cloud, that challenge has only increased,” he told TechCrunch via email. “We are on a mission to radically improve the analytics landscape by making enterprise-scale data transformations as efficient and flexible as possible.”

Coalesce offers tools designed to simplify modeling, cleansing and governance of data primarily in the Snowflake cloud, powered by what Petrossian describes as a “column-aware” architecture that leverages metadata to manage data transformations with an understanding of how the data is related or connected. Users can take advantage of data transformation automation templates that can be edited, packaged and shared, either with code or a visual design tool.

Image Credits: Coalesce

Often, companies approach Coalesce with specific problems, Petrossian said, like needing to transform data from different databases, apps and systems to follow a certain spec or standard. Other customers seek to speed up business intelligence queries by removing the need to search across multiple data sources and formats.

“Our product solves the largest bottleneck in analytics today by combining the speed of an intuitive graphical user interface with the flexibility of code, plus a healthy dose of automation, to enable rapid data transformations,” Petrossian continued. “With Coalesce, the data can be organized in an easy to access and read fashion while using automation to streamline the process and limit the amount of time needed by highly skilled engineers to code manually.”

Petrossian sees Coalesce competing with “extract, transform, and load” data integration vendors, including Informatica and Talend. The aforementioned Matillion also occupies that space, as does Incorta and Etleap.

Fortunately for Coalesce, the ETL market is massive, with one estimate putting it at $10.75 million as of early 2021. While demurring when asked about revenue, Petrossian claimed that Coalesce’s business is quite strong, with “multiple” Fortune 500 customers paying for the startup’s services.

“Our company was born during the pandemic and has given us an opportunity to serve enterprise Fortune 500 companies that are resilient to the potential looming recession,” Petrossian added. “The Coalesce platform is easing the burden of companies struggling to find talented data engineers or architects by providing them with a tool that empowers their existing teams to be much more efficient without compromising flexibility at scale.”

Coalesce currently has 40 salaried employees, spread across locations in four different countries. Petrossian wouldn’t commit to hiring a certain number this year but said the plan is to invest generally in Coalesce’s marketing, sales and engineering operations.

Coalesce lands fresh capital to transform data at ‘enterprise scale’ by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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