Institute of Genetics and Cancer

Accurate and cost-effective COVID-19 PCR test developed

A cross-Institute research team led by Martin Reijns have developed a multiplex assay with human quality control probe, performing as well as commercial tests but at a tenth of the cost: December 2020

Martin Reijns

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic there is a need for sensitive, specific and affordable diagnostic tests to identify infected individuals, not all of whom show symptoms. The most sensitive test involves the detection of viral RNA using RT-qPCR, with many commercial kits now available for this purpose. However, these are expensive and the supply of such kits in sufficient numbers cannot always be guaranteed.

To address this, a team of researchers from across IGMM worked in collaboration with NHS scientists to develop a multiplex assay using well-established SARS-CoV-2 targets alongside a human cellular control and a (non-corona) viral spike-in control, which monitor sample quality and nucleic acid extraction efficiency respectively. This test performs as well as widely used commercial assays but at substantially reduced cost.

The team demonstrated more than 1,000-fold variability in material routinely collected by nose-and-throat swabbing and established a statistically significant correlation between the detected level of human and SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acids. The inclusion of the human control probe in the assay therefore provides a quantitative measure of sample quality that could help reduce false negative rates.

The researchers demonstrated the feasibility of establishing a robust RT-qPCR assay at approximately 10% of the cost of equivalent commercial assays which could benefit low resource environments and make high volume testing affordable.

We are proud that our colleagues were able to make this valuable contribution to COVID testing. It's a terrific team effort, led by Martin Reijns, and a powerful demonstration of what academic researchers working together with NHS services can achieve.

Wendy BickmoreDirector MRC Human Genetics Unit

As well as providing a basis for potentially more efficient wide-spread testing in the future, this work has provided support to MRC Unit The Gambia by supplying reagents, giving advice and facilitating assay testing in West Africa since September.