Routine tests for illegal drugs have historically used urine samples or oral swabs to screen for substances like cocaine or MDMA, from rehabilitation settings to the criminal justice system. Both of these techniques have their caveats, but UK-based firm Intelligent Fingerprinting has developed an alternative route, using the eccrine sweat found on the fingertips. In the age of Covid-19, the test is finding a new application screening for the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Intelligent Fingerprinting, which is headquartered in Cambridge, uses lateral flow assay technology with fluorescence-labelled antibodies to selectively detect specific drugs and their metabolites. All it takes is a single fingerprint. The test subject simply pushes down on a drug screening cartridge, before a tamper-evident cover slides across and locks their fingerprint into place. The sample is then inserted into the DSR-Plus, a machine designed to scan eccrine sweat from the fingerprint sample, and in just ten minutes it can display an on-screen result.

“We brought that system to market commercially in 2018,” says Intelligent Fingerprinting executive chairman Philip Hand. “We sell that product to workplace testing customers – especially in safety-critical markets like construction and transportation – and the medical market, where people are looking at drug rehabilitation, to see whether somebody’s taken an opiate or whether they’ve taken their methadone. We also sell into the criminal justice side of things, so police and probation services are looking to use the product.”

Intelligent Fingerprinting during Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis has now opened up a new route for Intelligent Fingerprinting. Instead of amphetamines and opiates, the company is looking into repurposing its technology to screen for the novel coronavirus.

The Intelligent Fingerprinting team is starting out by testing oral fluid samples on the screening cartridges. To do so, it’s using the archive of verified nasal and throat swab samples stored at Imperial College London.

The virus is already known to be present in oral fluid, while a question mark still hangs over its presence in eccrine sweat. If the DSR-Plus can be remodelled to detect the virus in oral swabs with sufficient specificity and sensitivity, then the researchers will know if scaling down to fingerprint testing for Covid-19 is possible.

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Intelligent Fingerprinting’s test will be an antigen test, designed to find direct traces of the virus to determine whether or not a person is actively infected.

“We’re probably two or three weeks away from putting the test into a physical cartridge to allow us to then go and do that initial verification work,” says Hand. “We could place these instruments in various establishments – care homes, business, airports – and test people.”

A busy year ahead

Alongside the potential new use case for its pre-existing platform, Intelligent Fingerprinting has noticed a renewed interest in its current technology. Due to social distancing requirements, collecting the usual samples for routine recreational drug testing has become much more difficult, but a fingerprint test can allow these screenings to carry on as normal.

UK drug dependency clinic Change Grow Live has now acquired 50 of Intelligent Fingerprinting’s units to roll out nationally, allowing people to be more socially distanced when drug testing is taking place. While companies across all sectors are struggling in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nature of Intelligent Fingerprinting’s technology is allowing it to weather the crisis with confidence.

Hand says: “When we saw Covid happening and we furloughed some of our staff, we thought we were going to be bunkering down. But all our staff are off furlough now and they’re actively working, either at home if they can, or in the office if they’re doing research on the Covid program, or manufacturing for customer delivery. I think 2020 is going to continue to be quite busy for us.”