New COVID-19 testing protocol could deliver faster, cheaper results for smaller hospitals


Two of the biggest obstacles to widespread COVID-19 testing continue to be time and cost for many rural hospitals.

One third-year Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine student, Zach Morehouse, is working to change that.

Morehouse, working alongside his mentor Dr. Rodney Nash from biotech firm Omni International in Georgia during a dedicated study period this past summer, helped create a new protocol utilizing homogenizers. Such equipment uniformly breaks apart and mixes substances together for faster and cheaper virus testing.

Currently, the team holds a provisional patent on the new testing technology, and their research is now published in Virology Journal.

According to Morehouse, who has a master’s degree and research background in virology, most COVID-19 tests are evaluated based on a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which require resource-heavy steps and specialized lab equipment that many smaller hospitals don’t have. This means patient samples from rural community hospitals and testing centers are often sent to labs in larger metro areas to be tested. This can cause delays in getting results to patients and their health care teams.

PCR-based testing also requires a variety of costly materials, including reagents, chemical compounds or solutions that help to detect other substances to deliver a result.

In a typical PCR test, the patient swab goes through a step called the extraction procedure, where the RNA is removed from the virus on the swab. Then, the RNA goes into a PCR, which amplifies the RNA and shows whether the virus is present.

Using samples of Human Coronavirus 229E, a virus similar in structure to COVID-19, Morehouse and the team at Omni developed a testing protocol that bypasses the RNA extraction and goes through homogenization, which essentially means shaking it very fast, breaking up the virus so it can go straight into the PCR-based reaction.

The testing procedure also bypasses about half of the reagents that are currently used in viral testing and can be applied to testing for a variety of different viruses.

In terms of patient experience, this new protocol is virtually identical to current testing methods.  Patients will still get a nasal or oral swab. But there are two differences patients might notice: faster results and a potentially lower cost of testing, since fewer materials are required.

Reducing the cost of testing can also help increase accessibility for people served by smaller community hospitals.

“As an osteopathic medical student, we talk about things like access to health care all the time,” Morehouse said. “We know that the availability of technology is prohibitive in access to care. Having the ability to bring this technology into resource-challenged areas that maybe can't afford to set up a fully-automated testing lab really helps.”

Morehouse’s next step is to try the protocol on confirmed COVID-19 samples, which he and his colleagues are doing with clinical collaborators at George Mason University, Emory University and University of Georgia.

He also continues to do his clinical rotations while working toward finishing his last two years of osteopathic medical school and recognizes the role his medical education has played in understanding how vital access to health care can be.

“As osteopathic physicians, we are being trained to meet people where they're at in their health care,” Morehouse said. “My instructors are good at explaining that it isn't always in fancy hospitals or big tertiary care facilities where you have every resource available. Sometimes you have to work with what you have and innovate to meet the needs of your patients while working to solve the health delivery disparities they face.”