At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many developing countries struggled to access the diagnostic tests they desperately needed to bring the viral disease under control.
And at a media briefing on COVID-19 in March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged governments to test and isolate.
“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, and test.”
In Kilifi, over 9000 kilometers away from Geneva where Dr Tedros spoke, two Form Two students aged 16, from St. Thomas Girls Secondary School – Swabrina Chepkemoi and Marieta Halima—have heeded the global call.
The duo has developed a locally assembled Covix-Breathalyzer Testing Kit.
The testing kit has biomarker sensors used in detecting the presence of infections, particularly from viruses, and a fluorescence microscope, to test, detect and analyse breath content and give instant results.
“This kit can be used to test for COVID-19 and it’s much better than the nasal swabs currently being used. The Covix-Breathalyzer Testing Kit is not invasive as nasal swabs. It is also fast and convenient to use,” said Swabrina.
Like everyone, the girls had observed the challenges people were facing getting access to tests for COVID-19 at the time.
They used the knowledge acquired in their microscopy and cell physiology classes in Biology in Form One.
Their biology teacher, Bonface Keya, said the school has been partnering with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Kilifi, through school engagement programs where the girls have been taken through research concepts by KEMRI researchers.
Mr Keya helped them develop the test prototype, which is a one-foot rectangular tower made of a carton box.
“As a patron, I mentor, coach and guide the students in the project ideation and prototyping,” said Mr Keya.
The students were also inspired by the idea that their invention can reduce the queues in hospitals.
“The healthcare system needs quick, inexpensive and easy-to-use test kits and our Rapid Covix-Breathalyzer Testing Kit meets this requirement,” said Marieta.
Materials used are a recycled carton box, optical filter, wood and a glass slide. There is also a locally assembled fluorescent microscope that is used to analyse samples collected from the breathalyser.
There is a gas sensor that is used to detect gases like ammonia, methane and nitrate oxide, which are used as an indicator of the presence of the infection on the respiratory tract due to inflammation in the lungs. Such as following an infection, such as COVID-19.
The timely innovation by the Kilifi students was ranked top at this year’s Blaze Young Scientists Kenya National Science and Technology Exhibition virtual event held from October 5 to 8. This year’s exhibition featured 111 projects—ranging from chemical, physical and mathematical sciences, technology, biological and ecological sciences, and social and behavioural sciences fields— by 214 students from 30 counties.
The students will receive a full scholarship after completion of their high school at Strathmore University in Nairobi as they seek to turn their prototype into a product that can be used in the health sector.
In future, the two students want to be engineers in the medical field. They say they want to use their talents and scientific skills to offer solutions to the problems Kenyans face.