Oxford startup which has created a pain-free mouth swab for Covid-19 secures £4.6 M in funding

Vatic

The start-up behind a pain-free saliva mouth swab that can tell you if you are currently infectious with COVID-19 in fifteen minutes, has caught the attention of venture capital companies Hoxton Ventures and LocalGlobe with support from Entrepreneur First, the Oxford Foundry and InnovateUK.

Vatic Health, which has branded its swab KnowNow, was founded in October 2019 by Alex Sheppard and Dr Mona Kab Omir. When the first wave of COVID-19 started in the UK in early 2020, the team immediately saw an opportunity to contribute to global efforts to tackle the pandemic, and leveraged work already underway on antigen testing to quickly start developing the KnowNowᵀᴹ Test.

The company, which based at The Oxford Science Park, says its KnowNowᵀᴹ Test’s specificity is 100 per cent. In more than 700 negative patient saliva samples, it hasn’t returned a single false positive result.

Specificity is particularly important when disease prevalence is low and tests are intended to be used at enormous scale. For example, if a test with just a three per cent false positive rate is used on one million people per day, that would result in 30,000 people per day being falsely identified as infectious with COVID-19 and being unnecessarily asked to self-isolate.

The KnowNow Test and COVID-19 antibody tests test for completely different things.

Antibody tests identify whether someone has had coronavirus in the past, whereas the KnowNow Test detects whether an individual is currently infectious.

Antibody testing involves detecting the immune response in the human body to having fought off a virus. These tests look for an antibody created in the bloodstream in response to the presence of a virus in that environment. This is useful when testing the effectiveness of a vaccine, or understanding how far and wide a virus has spread. However, it is of limited usefulness to individuals, as it is only able to identify whether an individual has fought off the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the past. It cannot effectively confirm whether they are currently infected, or infectious, says the company.

The company also says that KnowNow offers two key benefits over polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

The first benefit is that the KnowNow test needs only a saliva sample, which can be taken easily and comfortably from the mouth. PCR tests usually need a nasopharyngeal, anterior nasal or tonsil sample, all of which are painful and unpleasant for the individual being tested and more challenging to collect effectively for the clinical professional administering the test. No one wants to be made to cry or gag, or make someone else cry or gag, on a regular basis!

The KnowNow test also uses its unique detection mechanism to determine whether an individual is actually infectious, whereas PCR tests identify whether SARS-CoV-2 viral matter is present in an individual’s body, regardless of whether it is already inactive.

Although PCR tests have been seen as the “gold standard” test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, they do have a number of drawbacks. Laboratory processing is required, meaning that there is a delay before results can be returned, and the associated costs are relatively high. Also the detection mechanism does not specifically identify whether individuals are infectious. In fact, PCR tests detect the virus long after the infectious period, and individuals can continue to test positive for a mean of 17 days after they have stopped being able to infect others (source). This means that people who are not infectious are unnecessarily quarantined as a result of a positive PCR test.