Pinay leads development of Switzerland's COVID-19 mass testing technology
University of the Philippines Los Baños alumna Catharine Aquino-Fournier, who was recently featured on the campus website.
University of the Philippines Los Baños
Pinay leads development of Switzerland's COVID-19 mass testing technology
Ratziel San Juan ( - July 10, 2020 - 1:02pm

MANILA, Philippines — University of the Philippines Los Baños alumna Catharine Aquino-Fournier is behind the development of promising mass testing technology in Switzerland considered a "breakthrough" in the international fight against the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Los Baños native, who finished with degrees in Biology and Genetics from the state university, now finds herself the group leader of an application called "HiDRA-seq" at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich.

To detect the coronavirus, the application uses state-of-the-art Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology, which determines the DNA sequence or fingerprint of a cell or an organism and analyzes billions of DNA fragments from a cell within hours.

Aquino-Fournier told Radyo DZLB’s Galing UPLB that HiDRA-seq's method is comparable to the "gold standard" real-time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) test because it similarly counts virus particles within the sample.

“Since we have the sequences, we can determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that we find... In the technology we developed, we are trying to skip the part of extracting the genetic material and get it straight from saliva, or gargles, or directly from the swab,” she said.

Aquino-Fournier further explained that their developed method includes contact tracing functionality, able to detect where or whom the infection originated.

In her team's official press release, they explained that the method enables scientists to draw conclusions about infection chains and the origin of the virus.

Functional Genomic Center Zurich Head Ralph Schlapbach said in a disclaimer that although the method was not necessarily developed for diagnosing COVID-19, its positive results are proof that it can complement existing diagnostic methods.

“Since there is a shortage of materials used for rRT–PCR, we tried to come up with a technique to not affect their supply,” Aquino-Fournier said, clarifying that the application is not meant to replace the existing gold standard and it still has a 10% chance of returning wrong results.

HiDRA-seq allows up to 100,000 samples to be processed in a single run at a cost of $2 per sample.

The team is continuing to improve the method and is seeking collaboration and feedback from experts.

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