Background: Coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) has spread widely throughout the world since the end of 2019. Nucleic acid testing (NAT) has played an important role in patient diagnosis and management of COVID-19. In some circumstances, thermal inactivation at 56°C has been recommended to inactivate severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) before NAT. However, this procedure could theoretically disrupt nucleic acid integrity of this single-stranded RNA virus and cause false negatives in real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests.
Methods: We investigated whether thermal inactivation could affect the results of viral NAT. We examined the effects of thermal inactivation on the quantitative RT-PCR results of SARS-CoV-2, particularly with regard to the rates of false-negative results for specimens carrying low viral loads. We additionally investigated the effects of different specimen types, sample preservation times, and a chemical inactivation approach on NAT.
Results: Our study showed increased Ct values in specimens from diagnosed COVID-19 patients in RT-PCR tests after thermal incubation. Moreover, about half of the weak-positive samples (7 of 15 samples, 46.7%) were RT-PCR negative after heat inactivation in at least one parallel testing. The use of guanidinium-based lysis for preservation of these specimens had a smaller impact on RT-PCR results with fewer false negatives (2 of 15 samples, 13.3%) and significantly less increase in Ct values than heat inactivation.
Conclusion: Thermal inactivation adversely affected the efficiency of RT-PCR for SARS-CoV-2 detection. Given the limited applicability associated with chemical inactivators, other approaches to ensure the overall protection of laboratory personnel need consideration.
Keywords: COVID-19; RT-PCR; SARS-CoV-2; false negative; nucleic acid test; thermal inactivation.
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