China Introduces Robot Arms for Coronavirus Throat Swabs

A prong extending from the CIRA-03 remote-controlled robot prototype approaches the mouth of a volunteer to extract a throat swab sample, as part of a self-funded project to assist physicians in running tests on suspected COVID-19 coronavirus patients in a bid to limit human exposure to disease-carriers, at a private …
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

China’s state-run Global Times on Thursday triumphantly announced the deployment of intimidating robot arms to perform throat swab coronavirus tests “with reasonable sampling accuracy and efficiency.”

The Global Times envisioned these robots replacing humans entirely in the coronavirus testing process, but for now they have been deployed on a test basis in the eastern Shandong province. The developers said the fully tested robot arms will be handed over to local officials for live deployment within a few days.

“There is demand from some local governments and hospitals in Shanghai, East China’s Anhui Province and Jiangsu Province, Central China’s Hunan Province and South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region,” the Global Times reported, quoting developers at the Advanced Mechanism and Roboticized Equipment Lab of Tsinghua University.

According to the lab, the robot swabbing arms were constructed early in the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, but have not been used until now, when the Omicron wave sweeping across China created a massive demand for nucleic acid testing. 

The bots can reportedly swab a subject in 42 seconds flat, and the designers think they can cut the time down to 30 seconds with further refinements. The robot arm and its sampling equipment are encased in a frosted glass box, which presumably both keeps the samples pure and lessens the psychic shock of watching a huge hydraulic robot arm shove a cotton swab down the subject’s throat.

Coronavirus test robots were used in the city of Shenyang as far back as January, Chinese state media reported, but those systems were not fully autonomous – the robot arm was guided by a human medical worker. The January reports mentioned Shenzhen and Tsinghua University researchers were working on a fully autonomous system.

Shanghai came to an almost complete standstill on Friday as the second phase of its coronavirus lockdown commenced, but the first phase did not actually end. 

“Fresh official guidance indicated that many in China’s most populous city will now be required to stay home as long as it takes to control the outbreak – instructed not to cross their doorsteps even to dispose of rubbish or walk their dogs,” Reuters reported.

“Shanghai, now accounting for three out of every four local asymptomatic cases across the country, has emerged as a test bed for the national government’s handling of [Chinese coronavirus] – a ‘dynamic clearance’ approach which aims to test for, trace and centrally quarantine all positive cases,” the report added, making the city sound like an ideal test market for the robot swabbing arms.

Reuters noted that Shanghai residents are increasingly skeptical of the low case numbers reported by the authorities as a growing number of people notice positive test results for themselves or their neighbors are mysteriously missing from the official epidemic maps.

Shanghai is still officially reporting zero coronavirus deaths, even though hospital staffers and relatives are telling local media about numerous elderly patients who died from Chinese coronavirus, the New York Times pointed out Friday.

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