medRxiv. 2020 Sep 3:2020.08.04.20167874. doi: 10.1101/2020.08.04.20167874. Preprint.
The rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is due to the high rates of transmission by individuals who are asymptomatic at the time of transmission. Frequent, widespread testing of the asymptomatic population for SARS-CoV-2 is essential to suppress viral transmission and is a key element in safely reopening society. Despite increases in testing capacity, multiple challenges remain in deploying traditional reverse transcription and quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) tests at the scale required for population screening of asymptomatic individuals. We have developed SwabSeq, a high-throughput testing platform for SARS-CoV-2 that uses next-generation sequencing as a readout. SwabSeq employs sample-specific molecular barcodes to enable thousands of samples to be combined and simultaneously analyzed for the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2 in a single run. Importantly, SwabSeq incorporates an in vitro RNA standard that mimics the viral amplicon, but can be distinguished by sequencing. This standard allows for end-point rather than quantitative PCR, improves quantitation, reduces requirements for automation and sample-to-sample normalization, enables purification-free detection, and gives better ability to call true negatives. We show that SwabSeq can test nasal and oral specimens for SARS-CoV-2 with or without RNA extraction while maintaining analytical sensitivity better than or comparable to that of fluorescence-based RT-qPCR tests. SwabSeq is simple, sensitive, flexible, rapidly scalable, inexpensive enough to test widely and frequently, and can provide a turn around time of 12 to 24 hours.