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Massive and rapid COVID-19 testing is feasible by extraction-free SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR

By Ioanna Smyrlaki, Martin Ekman, Antonio Lentini, Nuno Rufino de Sousa, Natali Papanicoloau, Martin Vondracek, Johan Aarum, Hamzah Safari, Shaman Muradrasoli, Antonio Gigliotti Rothfuchs, Jan Albert, Bjorn Hogberg, Björn Reinius

Posted 17 Apr 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.04.17.20067348

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The most widely used method of COVID-19 diagnostics is a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay, to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in patient samples, typically from nasopharyngeal swabs. RNA extraction is a major bottleneck in current COVID-19 testing, in terms of turn-around, logistics, component availability and cost, which delays or completely precludes COVID-19 diagnostics in many settings. Efforts to simplify the current methods are critical, as increased diagnostic availability and efficiency would benefit patient care and infection control. Here, we describe methods to circumvent RNA extraction in COVID-19 testing by performing RT-PCR directly on heat-inactivated subject samples as well as samples lysed with readily available detergents. Our data, including benchmarking with 597 clinically diagnosed patient samples against a standardised and sensitive diagnostic system, show that direct RT-PCR is a viable option to extraction-based COVID-19 diagnostics. Furthermore, using controlled amounts of active SARS-CoV-2, we evaluated performance of generic buffers as sample medium for the direct RT-PCR assay, identifying several suitable formulations. We also confirmed the effectiveness of heat inactivation of SARS-CoV-2 by plaque assay. Significant savings in terms of time and cost can be achieved by embracing RNA-extraction-free protocols, that feed directly into the established PCR-based testing pipeline. This could aid the expansion of COVID-19 testing.

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