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New COVID-19 Mass Test is 100 Times More Sensitive than Rapid Antigen Tests

New COVID-19 Mass Test is 100 Times More Sensitive than Rapid Antigen Tests

New test offers great potential for systematic testing in daycare centers, schools, or companies

Bonn, — In addition to vaccination, systematic testing of the population remains of central importance in order to effectively monitor and contain the spread of infections during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Only in this way can the spread of the virus be effectively monitored and contained through targeted measures.

A new COVID-19 test developed at the University Hospital Bonn (UKB) can analyze a large number of swabs simultaneously using sequencing technology and has a sensitivity similar to the common qPCR test. The innovative method offers great potential, especially for systematic testing in daycare centers, schools, or companies. The results of the study on the new Coronavirus test have been published in the renowned journal Nature Biotechnology.

The innovative test "LAMP-Seq," which has been developed at UKB, offers the possibility to test numerous people regularly for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this way, infections can be detected at an early stage and corresponding chains of infection can be interrupted quickly. "Our Coronavirus test, LAMP-Seq, can detect about 100 times lower amounts of virus than current rapid antigen tests and is almost as sensitive and specific as the common qPCR test," describes Dr. Jonathan Schmid-Burgk from the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology of the UKB. 

The test procedure was developed interdisciplinary with other researchers at the UKB. 

"Added to this is the high scalability of the test. By using sequencing machines, thousands of samples can be analyzed simultaneously," said Schmid-Burgk, who was appointed to the University of Bonn from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in early 2020. The LAMP-Seq method detects not only COVID-19 infections with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, but also the novel variants of concern alpha to delta.

Members of the ImmunoSensation2 cluster of excellence, the Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Life&Brain GmbH, and Bundeswehr Central Hospital Koblenz were among those involved in the project. 

For the LAMP-Seq test, the Bonn scientists have adapted the already established LAMP method (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification—propagation of the viral genome at a constant temperature) and made it compatible with sequencing machines used for biomedical research. As a result, many samples can be analyzed simultaneously in a high-throughput procedure. Before thousands of samples are analyzed together in a sequencing run, each individual sample is linked to a molecular barcode. This barcode ensures that each sample can be identified without doubt, even after thousands of samples have been pooled. "Retesting of the entire pool in case of a positive test result is therefore no longer necessary," says Dr. Kerstin Ludwig, Emmy-Noether group leader at the Institute of Human Genetics. This technology significantly reduces the cost per test in comparison to the qPCR test and makes the LAMP-Seq procedure a scalable COVID-19 mass test.

"With its high throughput and sensitivity, the LAMP-Seq test can make a significant contribution to the screening of undetected infections. Especially in schools or companies, where many people regularly meet, the LAMP-Seq test is ideal to systematically and preventively monitor the occurrence of infections," describes Ludwig, the codeveloper of the test procedure.

Professor Wolfgang Holzgreve, medical director and CEO of the UKB, explains: "In order to effectively contain a pandemic, infected people must be found before they infect others. To achieve this goal, we need mass screenings with the highest sensitivity that can give us a detailed picture of existing chains of infection. This is exactly what the LAMP-Seq test developed at UKB is suited for."

Blue-stained swab material from COVID-19 tests are being prepared for analysis in a sequencing device with the help of a laboratory robot.
Felix Heyder / University Hospital Bonn

Even smaller models of the sequencing machines used are capable of analyzing around 10,000 samples in a single run (duration: around 10 to 12 hours). This virtually eliminates laboratory capacity as a limiting factor in testing.

In several large studies with a total of around 20,000 tests, the Bonn scientists have extensively tested, optimized, and successfully validated the entire upstream and downstream logistics, from sample collection by throat swabs to fully digital feedback of the test results. The documentation of the study results recently passed an independent peer review process and was published in the renowned journal Nature Biotechnology.

While the Bonn scientists have currently focused their innovative method entirely on SARS-CoV-2 testing, LAMP-Seq can also be used in the future for differential diagnostics in testing for other viruses such as influenza A and can also be quickly adapted to other viruses. 

The scientists are currently working on CE certification in order to make the LAMP-Seq test available internationally in the near future. Until this approval is obtained, the LAMP-Seq method will continue to be used for pilot testing.

- This press release was provided by University Hospital Bonn