How does a Coronavirus Test Work?

The most widely used test uses polymerase chain reaction or PCR, a technique invented in the 1980s. Central to PCR is its ability to “amplify” DNA — multiply genetic material into large enough quantities to analyse. In the case of the coronavirus, the virus’ RNA first needs to be converted to DNA using an enzyme called reversetranscriptase before putting samples into a PCR machine. Samples collected in throat and nasal swabs are mixed with reagents, which are particles that bind to the virus’s genetic material to ensure no other type of DNA in the sample is amplified. Next, the sample is placed in the PCR machine, which uses cycles of heating and cooling to help the reagents amplify the target DNA into millions of copies. A fluorescent dye is added — the dye glows if the result is positive.

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