Hackensack’s CDI creates rapid test (2.5 hours) for detecting COVID-19 variants

Test, which can help streamline treatment, has shown how extensive variants are in state

Experts at the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation have developed a high-throughput test that can detect multiple variants of the COVID-19 virus in 2.5 hours, a major advance in tracking the virus and in treating patients.

CDI officials say the test can detect the known U.K., Brazil, and South African variants, as well as others containing the key E484K mutation, which are gaining prominence as the virus evolves.

Dr. David Perlin, the chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the CDI, said getting test results for variants back quickly will help doctors respond in a more effective manner. Simply put, different variants need to be treated with different measures — and some do not respond as well to some of the now-standard treatments for those with COVID-19, he said.

“Certain virus variants are concerning because they are resistant or less responsive to current first-line treatments involving monoclonal antibody cocktails,” Perlin said.  “Our rapid throughput test allows doctors to treat those with COVID-19 who have specific variants with more effective therapies.”

The test also is showing just how quickly the variants are rising in the state.

When the CDI test assessed samples from New Jersey patients from December 2020-February 2021, it found the virus variants increasing in prominence. Among 435 nasal swab samples at eight hospitals and other care sites across the Hackensack Meridian Health network, the E484K variant was found at a rate of 12% of all samples in February 2021. The N501Y variant followed in prevalence in 2021 with 11%.

The study, which was co-authored with scientists from the New York Genome Center, was published online in medRxiv.

Dr. David Perlin. (File photo)

Since these findings are from a variety of care settings within Hackensack Meridian Health and located throughout New Jersey — and since the variants were detected in multiple locations, it’s highly likely that the variants are going undetected in other parts of the state, CDI officials said.

These “immune-escape” variants carrying the E484K mutation also are concerning because they have been linked in other countries with re-infection, Perlin said.

While the E484K mutation appears to make the virus resistant to certain treatments, like particular monoclonal antibodies, the major COVID-19 vaccines are still broadly effective against preventing severe disease. Vaccination is still key to beating COVID-19, according to Perlin.

The CDI has sequenced more than 2,500 viruses and is working with the state of New Jersey to develop the most complete picture of the viral landscape yet assembled. This new high-throughput tool allows resources for whole genome sequencing to be directed against the most concerning viruses.

Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Bob Garrett said this test is another example of the work being done at CDI.

“The Center for Discovery and Innovation is again leading the way in creating breakthroughs that will help defeat this pandemic,’’ he said. “The CDI was created for this purpose — to deliver effective solutions in real-time that will benefit patients, our communities and well beyond.’’