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How is the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Diagnosed?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

As of late 2019, the word “coronavirus” began gaining steam in the world media as a new type of coronavirus, COVID-19, began to rapidly spread. Governments around the world were quick to recognize the implications of a disease with neither cure nor prevention, and moved quickly to impose quarantines against public gatherings and activities in the hopes of curbing the spread of new cases. 


Among the most crucial steps in treating any disease is quite simply knowing that a person is infected. COVID-19 has presented a serious challenge to proper diagnosis, as the symptoms are in many ways indistinguishable from ordinary influenza. Additionally, the symptoms tend to be fairly mild as compared to other illnesses in many people, and the virus often has a 14-day incubation period before showing any symptoms at all.

Diagnosis occurs in a number of increasingly cautious steps, a procedure prompted by the exceptional caution with which most countries are approaching the issue. Individuals exposed to an infected person are immediately diagnosed as possible carriers and enter quarantine for no less than 14 days. During this time, they monitor themselves carefully for the symptoms currently confirmed to be caused by COVID-19: fever, cough, headaches, and shortness of breath. 

Should any of these appear, the patient is subjected to a physical testing of a saliva or blood sample to be checked under laboratory conditions. Technicians use a process known as ‘reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction detection’ (don’t worry, it’s a mouthful for anyone) to check for the genetic material that makes up COVID-19. 

When a sample is submitted, the genetic material is first chemically extracted, and the ribonucleic acids (RNA) contained in the sample are analyzed. RNA looks like one half of the twisted ladder that is the familiar shape of DNA and can be used in biochemical processes to create DNA by joining together particles with another half. In COVID-19 detection, the pieces are calibrated to join any viral RNA with a fluorescent particle readable by a computer. If any fluorescence is detected, it means that viral RNA was used to create the new synthetic DNA strand, indicating the presence of COVID-19 in that sample. 

Although the tests were developed quickly, they have proved both accurate and effective thus far. A far more significant obstacle than testing for the virus has been creating enough testing kits to meet demand. Because the test requires a considerable amount of specialized laboratory equipment and materials, the number of possible cases has rapidly outstripped the supply available.

In order to ease the strain on testing facilities, many countries have taken steps to encourage symptom- and exposure-based self-diagnosis, asking patients to remain isolated if they suspect they have been exposed and monitor themselves for any possible effects of COVID-19. Another approach has been to minimize the strain on laboratory personnel by emphasizing smaller testing kits that are completed at home and dropped off at a collection center, reducing the time and physical contact needed to diagnose a possible patient. 

Additionally, the world as a whole has taken steps to boost production and procurement of laboratory testing materials, a hearteningly unified step towards managing COVID-19 for good.

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