Chinese biotech firms and universities are increasing their efforts to produce the most advanced robots for COVID-19 testing to minimize the workload on medical professionals, increase efficiency, and promote the resuscitation of cross-border travel.
The trend comes with the release of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s five-year strategy for the robotics industry (2021-25). It urges increased efforts to expand the use of robotics in new sectors, including healthcare.
According to officials, Tsinghua University and Bioteke Corp, a firm based in Wuxi, Jiangsu province specializing in molecular diagnostics and quick detection, notably nucleic acid extraction, have developed a robot that can do COVID-19 testing with exceptional speed and efficiency.
The robot, which resembles a vending machine, can collect throat swabs, process samples, and deliver results and update them in 45 minutes, without the participation of a laboratory or any human intervention, according to Sun Fuchun, a professor of robotics at Tsinghua University who led the robot’s research and development.
“A robot is a one-stop machine for COVID-19 testing,” Sun explained. “It differs from robots that can merely gather samples.” “Our robot, equipped with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test machine, can simultaneously analyze samples from up to 960 people.”
According to Sun, vice-president of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence, a business association with headquarters in Beijing, the robot has various modules for sampling, extraction, purification, detection, and result in analysis, in addition to having information management capabilities.
The National Medical Product Administration has already designated a Bioteke PCR test machine as a Class-III domestic medical product. China’s national medical product regulator conducts a thorough regulatory evaluation before approving and registering Class-III domestic medical devices.
The top medical product authority currently examines the robot for a Class-III license.
“We hope to reduce the entire process from 45 minutes to 30 minutes in the next-generation robot, which is now in production and will be presented in a few months,” Sun said.
Some sample-collection robots modified from industrial robotic arms with restricted mechanical motions may give consumers an unpleasant experience. However, the robotic claw on this new equipment is custom-built and made of more flexible materials to ensure that it moves softly when gathering mouth swab samples, according to Sun.
To ease the workload on medical workers, the robots are being tested in hospitals and organizations, including Beijing Tsinghua Changgung Hospital and Nantong Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Nantong, Jiangsu province.