Verifying and debunking

A Hong Kong-based biotech firm has developed a digital platform that can deduce viral load on COVID-19 patients through photos of RAT kits and filter any cheating practice, a solution that can be relevant for Macau in light of more cyclic coronavirus outbreaks in the future.

Taking a nasal or oral swab for nucleic acid testing (NAT) or rapid antigen testing (RAT) has become a daily routine for everyone in Macau since June 18, as the city has experienced its worst community outbreak since the COVID-19 pandemic started more than two years ago. 

While it only requires about 15-20 minutes for RAT to render a result, this testing method is regarded as being less accurate than NAT, which requires hours for the samples to be processed in a laboratory before results are available. But if RAT is done on a regular basis with the incorporation of technology to verify the results, it might be as sensitive as NAT to identify positive cases. 

A Hong Kong-based biotech enterprise launched earlier this year a digital platform ( for people to upload photos of their rapid antigen test kits. Employing artificial intelligence (AI), the Antigen Rapid Test Quantitative System—or the ART-Quant System—developed by DNA-TECH Limited can deduce the viral load of a COVID-19 patient based on the shades of the test lines on the kits, namely, the darker the lines, the highest level of viral load the patient has. Different scores will be assigned to each photo, depending on the intensity of the colour of the lines; patients can then be aware of the progression of their own viral load and recovery journey by uploading photos to the platform every day.

“There are many people who have to undergo mandatory isolation and quarantine without much help from doctors,” says Chris Pang, New Ventures Product Manager of Hai Kang Life Corporation, the parent company of DNA-TECH. “Without seeing a doctor, our website, which is pretty much a telecare platform, can tell them when they are going to recover.”

“We’re basically guiding and being a companion to the people who are neglected when they’re positive,” he continues. “Sometimes you’re sick of COVID, but you are treated almost as if you better stay away from the population. That’s one of the reasons why [ART-Quant] was invented because we can help these people.”

Hai Kang Life Corporation—founded in 1999 with research facilities in both Hong Kong and Beijing—is now chaired by Albert Cheung Hoi Yu, who is also a professor and vice director of the Neuroscience Research Institute of Peking University in China.

“We’re basically guiding and being a companion to the people who are neglected when they’re positive,” says Chris Pang of Hai Kang Life. “Sometimes you’re sick of COVID, but you are treated almost as if you better stay away from the population.


Another key feature of ART-Quant is that its AI technology can spot low-quality photos and photos showing tests that have not been undertaken accurately, for instance, users do not wait for enough time, like 15 minutes, before taking a snap of the result, or they use other liquids to replace an oral or nasal sample for the test. “We have verification methods that can reject photos, so people can’t just manually upload whatever. We can actually filter what’s been done properly, what’s not been done properly and what looks like cheating,” says Mr Pang. 

“[ART-Quant] is useful for organisations and governments,” says Mr Pang. “[In Macau] people actually upload a photo and have to self-declare [for RAT], which is an honesty system. What  we try to do is that we know the honesty system somewhat works, but we can support it with verification. ” 

Since the start of the community outbreak in the city on June 18, which has reported more than 1,800 cases so far, the authorities have required all people in Macau to carry out RAT almost every day alongside NAT on a regular basis. While the local COVID-19 situation has apparently stabilised in recent times, the administration has pledged repeatedly “the normalisation of anti-COVID efforts” as there might be more COVID-19 outbreaks in the future given the more contagious Omicron variant.

“[In Macau] people actually upload a photo and have to self-declare [for RAT], which is an honesty system. What we try to do is that we know the honesty system somewhat works, but we can support it with verification,” says Hai Kang Life’s Chris Pang


Moreover, during the outbreak since June 18, some Macau residents have expressed worries about queuing for a test at a NAT station across the city, when they might be infected amid crowds of people, and have demanded RAT to replace NAT. But the Macau officials have rejected this possibility, stressing NAT can identify COVID-19 patients and thus stop the virus’ spread more effectively and accurately than RAT. 

But Mr Pang offers a counterpoint, claiming RAT can be as effective as NAT in locating positive cases, when the former is done on a regular basis with a verification system like ART-Quant. “What we’re actually doing in Hong Kong is we’re trying to convince hospitals and the government that if you test every 48 hours or 72 hours, especially in a surge of cases, you will find positive people [with RAT]. It’sas sensitive as testing PCR [polymerase chain reaction testing],” he says. PCR is a type of NAT that is used for COVID testing.

“You don’t have to 100 per cent rely on the honesty system and you can pick up the infectious cases much faster [than NAT],” he continues. “You can also find out how much viral load is in a person [with ART-Quant] and you can prioritise patient treatment. You can go check out people with a high viral load first.” 

This is also the point highlighted by the chairman of Hai Kang Life, Mr Yu, during the launch of ART-Quant in Hong Kong in March. “The system is cheaper and more efficient compared to the nucleic acid testing conducted by the healthcare workers [in the public sector], which can help us reduce the burden of the medical system,” he said at the time, quoted by Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post. 

Businesses can also adopt this digital platform to monitor the health situation of their employees. For instance, two Hong Kong companies, including a hair salon and a Chinese restaurant, have employed ART-Quant. “Organizations can do the screening every two to three days, or once a week, as long as they’re comfortable with everything,” Mr Pang adds.

Free of charge

This digital platform is now available in four languages—Chinese (traditional and simplified Chinese), English, Japanese and Korean—as it opens for everyone in the world to use. “We’re basically for everyone that is sick with COVID-19. They just have to donate US$1 [MOP8] to use it, and once they’ve donated US$1, it’s completely free,” he explains. “When you’re sick with COVID, it’s a negative event, but why don’t you turn it into a positive one by donating this US$1 to humanitarian causes.”

DNA-TECH currently also does not charge companies using ART-Quant to monitor the health of employees. “ART-Quant was invented on the belief that we can create a product that bridges us to the post-COVID-19 future,” the executive says. “If we put a price on it now, people aren’t going to get the message that we come from a perspective of helping people.”

He also acknowledges they aim to expand the market presence and improve the accuracy of the system—whose accuracy rate is over 96 per cent in filtering out photos—by drawing more people to use the platform without a fee. “We want to see growth on our platform, and once we have growth, we will start thinking about revenue,” he reasons. 

According to the firm, ART-Quant has so far possessed about 6,000-8,000 photos of RAT kits since its launch. “I think we will definitely be growing organically along with cyclic outbreaks of the virus,” he says. “We’re actually looking for a six-digit figure [in the number of users], or getting to 1 million by the end of the year. I think it’s doable.”