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In a study published in PLOS Biology on Oct. 7, Yale researchers successfully adapted an existing COVID-19 test into a more efficient method using multiplex RT-qPCR assays. If implemented, this enhanced test could save time, money and labor, helping labs optimize and expand testing.

Led by postdoctoral associate Eriko Kudo and professor of immunobiology Akiko Iwasaki, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have discovered a novel multiplex RT-qPCR technique that uses existing testing components developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentially, this novel multiplex assay is able to complete three tests in one reaction, rather than using three separate reactions to detect SARS-CoV-2. This more efficient technique is able to maintain the accuracy and specificity of the current single RT-qPCR test.

“We developed a new way to test for COVID by combining the three tests into one,” Iwasaki wrote in an email to the News. “This allows more samples to be tested at any given time. Imagine being able to obtain your COVID test results back three times faster because of this method!”

As of Oct. 19, over 40 million people have been infected with the virus, and over 1 million have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The United States alone recently surpassed 200,000 deaths caused by the virus, and the pandemic is not slowing down.

With no vaccine or cure, the most effective tools available to address the pandemic are widespread testing and contact tracing, the paper explains. Current diagnostic methods are limited by time, cost and lack of availability of testing reagents — barriers that this new assay successfully overcomes.

“We’ve noticed scarcity in reagents and disposable materials that are in short supply during this pandemic,” said Richard Martinello, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital. “The fact that this new multiplex assay can save reagents and time but maintains sensitivity and specificity is a real success.”

However, the discovery of this novel technology does not necessarily mean that it will actually be used in labs to test for COVID-19 in the near future.

Before they can be used to diagnose patients, tests must receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration — a process that may take weeks or even months, according to Thomas Balcezak, chief medical officer of Yale New Haven Hospital. He said that research laboratories like those at Yale may not even go forward with the approval process, leaving the burden of implementing such technologies on commercial laboratories.

“For now, our lab is focusing our limited resources on trying to develop an automated platform and pursuing pool testing,” Balcezak said.

He also noted that commercial labs, like Quest Diagnostics, may have already discovered and implemented more efficient methods like multiplex RT-qPCR assays. However, such findings would not be published in a scientific journal because research is not their top priority and because competition in the industry discourages the sharing of new and efficient testing methods.

Regardless, Balcezak highlighted the importance of making strides in the field of COVID-19 testing and publishing such results for the scientific community.

“Every additional idea that we can get out there is another step forward in getting easier, cheaper, faster testing,” he said. “Even beyond its use in this current pandemic, no one knows what purpose it could serve in the future.”

In the week of Oct. 11, there were 23 positive cases of the coronavirus among Yale students and four cases among faculty.

Veronica Lee | veronica.lee@yale.edu