Heat inactivation of clinical COVID-19 samples on an industrial scale for low risk and efficient high-throughput qRT-PCR diagnostic testing.
We report the development of a large scale process for heat inactivation of clinical COVID-19 samples prior to laboratory processing for detection of SARS-CoV-2 by RT-qPCR. With more than 266 million confirmed cases, over 5.26 million deaths already recorded at the time of writing, COVID-19 continues to spread in many parts of the world. Consequently, mass testing for SARS-CoV-2 will remain at the forefront of the COVID-19 response and prevention for the near future. Due to biosafety considerations the standard testing process requires a significant amount of manual handling of patient samples within calibrated microbiological safety cabinets. This makes the process expensive, effects operator ergonomics and restricts testing to higher containment level laboratories. We have successfully modified the process by using industrial catering ovens for bulk heat inactivation of oropharyngeal/nasopharyngeal swab samples within their secondary containment packaging before processing in the lab to enable all subsequent activities to be performed in the open laboratory. As part of a validation process, we tested greater than 1200 clinical COVID-19 samples and showed less than 1 Cq loss in RT-qPCR test sensitivity. We also demonstrate the bulk heat inactivation protocol inactivates a murine surrogate of human SARS-CoV-2. Using bulk heat inactivation, the assay is no longer reliant on containment level 2 facilities and practices, which reduces cost, improves operator safety and ergonomics and makes the process scalable. In addition, heating as the sole method of virus inactivation is ideally suited to streamlined and more rapid workflows such as 'direct to PCR' assays that do not involve RNA extraction or chemical neutralisation methods.
Wellcome Trust (207498/Z/17/Z)