Sensitivity of Detection and Variant Typing of SARS-CoV-2 in European Laboratories

The molecular detection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is key for clinical management and surveillance. Funded by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, we conducted an external quality assessment (EQA) on the molecular detection and variant typing of SARS-CoV-2 that included 59 European laboratories in 34 countries. The EQA panel consisted of 12 lyophilized inactivated samples, 10 of which were SARS-CoV-2 variants (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Eta, parental B.1 strain) ranging from 2.5 to 290.0 copies/μL or pooled respiratory viruses (adenovirus, enterovirus, influenza virus A, respiratory syncytial virus, or human coronaviruses 229E and OC43). Of all participants, 72.9% identified the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA correctly. In samples containing 25.0 or more genome copies/μL, SARS-CoV-2 was detected by 98.3% of the participating laboratories. Laboratories applying commercial tests scored significantly better (P < 0.0001, Kruskal-Wallis test) than those using in-house assays. Both the molecular detection and the typing of the SARS-CoV-2 variants were associated with the RNA concentrations (P < 0.0001, Kruskal-Wallis test). On average, only 5 out of the 10 samples containing different SARS-CoV-2 variants at different concentrations were correctly typed. The identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants was significantly more successful among EQA participants who combined real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)-based assays for mutation detection and high-throughput genomic sequencing than among those who used a single methodological approach (P = 0.0345, Kruskal-Wallis test). Our data highlight the high sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 detection in expert laboratories as well as the importance of continuous assay development and the benefits of combining different methodologies for accurate SARS-CoV-2 variant typing.



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