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How do virus tests actually work? - Cella Wright

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A new virus emerges and spreads like wildfire. In order to contain it, researchers must first collect data about who’s been infected. Two main viral testing techniques are critical: one tells you if you have the virus and the other shows if you’ve already had it. So, how exactly do these tests work? Cella Wright explores the science of PCR tests and immunoassays.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Cella Wright
  • Director Luisa M H Copetti
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Storyboard Artist Luisa M H Copetti
  • Art Director Luisa M H Copetti
  • Compositor Gabriel Maia
  • Animator Maurício Canterle, Murilo Jardim, Felipe Urbanetto
  • Music Gabriel Maia
  • Sound Designer Gabriel Maia
  • Hype Producer Taíla Soliman
  • Hype Executive Producer Gabriel Garcia
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • Science Consultant Dr. Jim Huggett, Dr. Daniel Stadlbauer
  • Special Thanks Alejandra Guzman
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Scientists and researchers are currently using two main viral testing techniques. These tests work differently and can determine which individuals are currently or have previously been infected by a specific virus. Can these viral testing results potentially be used to create a treatment?

The PCR technique was discovered by Kary Mullis in the mid 1980’s. As a result of his revolutionary work to create massive quantities of genetic material, such as DNA, he received the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Many scientists have embraced this simple technology which has been adapted to suit many other applications related to health and science.

The first immunoassay was described by Solomon Berson and Rosalyn Yalow in 1959. They received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1977 due to this work. Since then, the work with immunoassays has changed and evolved significantly. Immunoassays play a vital role in many clinics and laboratories, the pharmaceutical industry, environmental monitoring, security, and food testing. To learn about the history and future applications of immunoassays check out this Pub Med article.

Both of these tests are currently being used to get genetic information from new and past viruses and bacterial diseases. To read more about how reliable these genetic tests are, check out this article from the National Public Radio (NPR). Click on this article to learn more about COVID-19 viral testing and how it has been used in the past.


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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Cella Wright
  • Director Luisa M H Copetti
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Storyboard Artist Luisa M H Copetti
  • Art Director Luisa M H Copetti
  • Compositor Gabriel Maia
  • Animator Maurício Canterle, Murilo Jardim, Felipe Urbanetto
  • Music Gabriel Maia
  • Sound Designer Gabriel Maia
  • Hype Producer Taíla Soliman
  • Hype Executive Producer Gabriel Garcia
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • Science Consultant Dr. Jim Huggett, Dr. Daniel Stadlbauer
  • Special Thanks Alejandra Guzman
  • See more