March 20, 2020

Small companies step up to big role in Covid-19 testing

Increased testing is a crucial part of controlling Covid-19. Some smaller biotech companies may have solutions to offer.

Maija Palmer

6 min read

“As of March 13th, we have received some £3.7m orders for our Covid-19 test kits. That represents about eight months of sales, so that gives you some idea for what this has done to the company,” says Paul Eros, business development director at Novacyt.

The Anglo-French molecular testing company's PrimerDesign subsidiary was one of the first to develop a lab test for detecting the virus, has found itself inundated with orders from 60 countries so far, one of the biggest of which was a recent £1m order for tests from Public Health England.

This is a significant opportunity for Novacyt to show what it can do.

Eros — who has been up since five this morning fielding calls — struggles to count just how many employees the company now has. It is changing fast. In normal times it was around 115, but Novacyt has had to expand its own production facilities and sign a deal with an outsourcing partner to handle the demand — and it is currently hiring more staff for its Southampton facility.


The company is no stranger to disease outbreaks. Its researchers were quick off the mark to develop tests for previous epidemics, such as SARS, swine flu and Ebola.

“Our scientists take it as a challenge and always want to be the first to develop an assay when there is an outbreak,” says Eros. But, given that these other outbreaks ended up being relatively well contained, none of them turned Novacyt into a household name. Its customers are normally research labs, not governments.

“This is a significant opportunity for Novacyt to show what it can do,” says Eros.

Investors have been taking note. Novacyt is dual-listed on the Euronext Growth market and London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM), and shares had been bumping along in a gentle decline for some time. By last October they were around £6 — now they are worth nearly 20x that.

Faster testing

Testing emerged as one of the most crucial factors in the Covid-19 pandemic, with the UK and the US, in particular, coming under fierce criticism for failing to test widely enough.

Now testing is being extended in the UK, from 5,000 tests a day to 25,000, and in the US the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made it quicker to get tests onto the market, starting with issuing Emergency Use Authorisations for tests made by Roche and Thermo Fisher

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One of the battles around testing is to improve the speed at which it can be done. Novacyt’s test takes about two hours to complete. Many companies are trying to shave that time down. California-based Fluxology, for example, is attempting to bring to market a test that would take just one hour. E25Bio, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, which creates rapid diagnostic tests for viruses like Zika and dengue, raised $2m from Khosla Ventures to develop a speedy Covid-19 test. 

Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Science Engineering department have also developed a rapid test that can give a result in half an hour, and have validated the system with clinical samples at a Shenzhen hospital. An Irish startup, Assay Genie, is also developing a test that could detect the Covid-19 virus from a single drop of blood in 15 minutes.

Antibody testing

In addition to being able to more quickly test if someone currently has the virus, it will become increasingly important to test for antibodies that would show if someone has had the disease.

Those people, who would be likely to have immunity from the disease, would be able to resume working and contact with vulnerable people. The sooner this kind of test can be brought on a mass scale, the sooner lockdowns can end and the economy can begin to recover.

Laboratory methods for diagnosing Covid-19 follow one of two methods — either detecting the virus itself, usually from a nose or throat swab, or detecting the antibodies that our bodies have developed to fight it. Antibodies typically develop around seven days after the infection (see below) but last in the body a long time, so that a previous Covid-19 infection should be detectable weeks or months later.

Chart showing when antibodies appear in human blood
A test for IgG antibodies would show if someone has contracted Covid-19 for some time after they recover.

Singapore was the first to use an antibody test, developed by researchers at the Duke-NUS Medical school, in February but now several companies are working to provide simple test kits using this method.

Biopanda Diagnostics, based in Belfast, was reported by Wired to be in talks with the UK government to supply a simple blood test that could test for Covid-19 antibodies in 10 minutes. The test kit, shown on the company’s website, looks as simple as a pregnancy test, a plastic case with blue lines appearing in a little window for a positive result.

Biopanda is a seed-stage company, launched in 2011, which, according to Dealroom, has just four employees, so it remains to be seen if the company could produce these tests on any mass scale.

AlphaBiolabs, a drug, alcohol and DNA-testing company based in Warrington in the UK, says it is bringing out a  £125 fingerprick test to show in 15 minutes if someone has developed antibodies against Covid-19. The test, initially available only to businesses, will be available by the end of March, the company said.

Beware the snake oil

Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, told a press conference on Thursday that the UK government is currently in talks with several companies about antibody tests but warned that, “We are not yet sure whether the [tests] currently on the market are the right ones”.

Some companies’ offers of antibody-testing kits do seem somewhat difficult to believe. UK-based BioSysAI, for example, claims to have FDA approval for a Covid-19 antibody testing kit that can give results in just three to six minutes.

Syed Mohiyaddin, the company’s sole listed director, told Sifted he had orders for the kit from Stonehenge Defence, a US defence contractor, but Sifted has struggled to find details for this company. Mohiyaddin was also vague about the details of where the tests were being developed and manufactured, telling Sifted that there was a research team of six located “in the Shanghai-area” and declining to name the manufacturing partner.

According to the listing on Companies House, the business was set up on March 10, 2020. The other products on the website are a curious mix of cardiovascular surgical equipment and personal health monitoring equipment, many of which seem to be manufactured by other companies.

Are you working on a Covid-19 testing kit? Please get in touch with us to tell us about the project!