Machines to replace human hands in COVID tests

A boy experiences a COVID-19 test robot during the World Robot Conference 2022 held in Beijing in August. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Chinese biotech companies and universities are stepping up efforts to develop the latest robots for COVID-19 testing to reduce the workload of medical personnel, increase efficiency and facilitate the resumption of cross-border travel.

The trend is also reflected in a five-year plan (2021-25) for the robotics industry, unveiled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. It calls for increased efforts to expand the application of robotics to more sectors, including healthcare.

Tsinghua University and Bioteke Corp, a company based in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, which focuses on molecular diagnosis and rapid detection, especially nucleic acid extraction, have developed a robot capable of performing COVID-19 testing with unprecedented speed and efficiency, officials said.

The robot, which looks like a vending machine, can collect throat swabs, process samples and produce results and upload them in just 45 minutes, without lab or human intervention, Sun Fuchun said, professor of robotics at Tsinghua University. , who led the research and development of the robot.

“The robot is a one-stop machine for COVID-19 testing, which differentiates it from robots that can only collect samples,” Sun said. “Our robot, which incorporates a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing machine, can process samples from up to 960 people at a time.”

The robot contains different modules for sampling, extraction, purification, detection and analysis of results, and also has information management capabilities, said Sun, who is also vice president of the China Association for Artificial Intelligence, an industry association based in Beijing.

A PCR test machine produced by Bioteke has already been approved by the National Medical Product Administration as a Class III household medical device. In China, domestic Class III medical devices are subject to strict regulatory review by the national medical products regulator for approval and registration.

The robot is now also being reviewed by the main medical product regulator for a Class III license.

“We aim to shorten the entire process from 45 minutes to 30 minutes in the next-generation robot, which is under development and expected to be unveiled in a few months,” Sun said.

Some sample collection robots adapted from industrial robotic arms that have limited mechanical movements could create an unpleasant experience for users. But the robotic claw in this new machine is custom-made and made of softer materials to ensure it moves smoothly when collecting oral swab samples, Sun said.

The robots are being tested at hospitals and organizations such as Tsinghua Changgung Hospital in Beijing and Nantong Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, helping to ease the burden on medical staff .

The market volume of China’s nucleic acid testing industry is expected to reach 14.6 billion yuan ($2.1 billion) in 2022, up from 13.2 billion yuan last year, according to the research-based company. in Shenzhen Askci Corp.

Regarding this market, Siasun Robot&Automation Co, one of China’s largest robotics companies, and a robotics unit of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp have also developed robots that can replace on-site personnel in picking oral swab samples. The samples are then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Zhou Zhitu, general manager of Bioteke, said nearly 20 million yuan has been invested in the research and development of the robots jointly developed with Tsinghua University.

“The cost of our robots is nearly half that of COVID-19 testing robots adapted from foreign industrial robotic arms,” ​​Zhou said, adding that they would be especially useful at airports, train stations and other places. requiring instant COVID-19 test results, help facilitate the resumption of cross-border travel.

In conditions such as the sweltering heat that recently scorched southern China, the robots could also relieve medical workers of having to wear the heavy protective suits needed when manually collecting throat swabs at treatment sites. COVID-19 test, Zhou added.

Song Xiaogang, executive director and general secretary of the China Robot Industry Alliance, said robots are important for advancing emerging technologies. As a key piece of equipment in modern industries, robots can lead to greater digital development and smart system upgrades.

James G. Williams