By Manoj Gandhi, M.D., Ph.D., Thermo Fisher’s senior director of medical affairs, Genetic Sciences, Thermo Fisher Scientific
If you look at where we are now in the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like there is light at the end of the tunnel, at least in some parts of the world. More people are getting vaccinated, which means we’re starting the process of returning to “normal” and doing the things that we love. But as the recent news on infectious variants and vaccine hesitancy indicate, we’re not quite out of the woods yet.
In fact, clinical surveillance and testing are still as important as ever. I recently joined my colleagues Peter Silvester, Thermo Fisher’s senior vice president and president of Life Sciences and Laboratory Products, and Garret Hampton, Ph.D., president of clinical next-generation sequencing, to speak about the ongoing need for COVID-19 diagnostic testing and surveillance. Peter and Garret provide a unique perspective on how Thermo Fisher’s customers are using our PCR, next-generation sequencing (NGS) and capillary electrophoresis solutions for SARS-CoV-2 surveillance and as they think about preparing for the next pandemic.
Despite a sense of return to normalcy, COVID-19 still infects thousands of people daily around the globe, and our lab customers are continuing to run COVID-19 tests.[i] Many of us have received a diagnostic COVID-19 test in the past year. A test can tell you whether you are infected or not, and PCR tests such as Thermo Fisher’s TaqPath COVID-19 Diagnostic Solutions are still the most sensitive and specific tests for detection of even small levels of the virus. That’s why PCR tests are considered the gold standard for detection of SARS-CoV-2.
While PCR is predominantly used as a diagnostic test to determine if a person is infected, it also has a non-diagnostic role to play in virus surveillance and keeping an eye on more infectious strains like the Alpha (B.1.1.7) and Delta variants. The TaqMan SARS-CoV-2 Mutation Panel* was designed for rapid detection of known variants and compatible across several existing PCR instruments.
There is also a need for continued surveillance to identify any new strains that may emerge. Viruses mutate as they go through their infection cycles. Most of those mutations don’t really change the characteristics of the virus, but some of them do. New strains begin to circulate as those changes become persistent. While our PCR mutation panel can determine if a sample contains a known strain, Garret explained that our customers using NGS for sequencing the virus are helping us “look outside the lamppost” to catch any new strains that have yet to be identified.
With NGS, there is no set expectation – it can be hypothesis-free. You can look at the virus’s whole genome, scouring every nucleotide for any mutation. As we continue to sequence, we may even be able to predict how viruses behave.
As more people get vaccinated and disease prevalence drops, there is still a risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, as we are seeing with recent spikes in a number of countries, primarily driven by the new Delta strain.[ii] In addition, coronavirus is not the only infectious disease capable of rapidly spreading around the globe; we don’t know what the next outbreak will be. Ongoing surveillance is necessary not just for SARS-CoV-2 but for other viruses that may emerge in the population.
The good news is that COVID-19 has increased global use of molecular diagnostics; healthcare professionals and clinical researchers now view it as a mainstream diagnostic method. This is a stark contrast from when I was in medical school and people relied more on viral cultures, for example, or agarose plates. Based on clinicians’ experience using molecular diagnostics for COVID, it is now accepted as a preferred diagnostic method because it provides fast, accurate results, and it can be scaled very quickly. With increased use of molecular diagnostics, we can have confidence the global scientific community will be better prepared for the next pandemic.
To learn more about Thermo Fisher Scientific’s COVID-19 Testing Solutions, please visit thermofisher.com/covid19.
To learn more about Thermo Fisher Scientific’s COVID-19 Surveillance Solutions, please visit thermofisher.com/covid19surveillance.
*For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.