Identification of the RNase-binding site of SARS-CoV-2 RNA for anchor primer-PCR detection of viral loading in 306 COVID-19 patients
The pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) urgently calls for more sensitive molecular diagnosis to improve sensitivity of current viral nuclear acid detection. We have developed an anchor primer (AP)-based assay to improve viral RNA stability by bioinformatics identification of RNase-binding site of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA and implementing AP dually targeting the N gene of SARS-CoV-2 RNA and RNase 1, 3, 6. The arbitrarily primed polymerase chain reaction (AP-PCR) improvement of viral RNA integrity was supported by (a) the AP increased resistance of the targeted gene (N gene) of SARS-CoV-2 RNA to RNase treatment; (b) the detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA by AP-PCR with lower cycle threshold values (-2.7 cycles) compared to two commercially available assays; (c) improvement of the viral RNA stability of the ORF gene upon targeting of the N gene and RNase. Furthermore, the improved sensitivity by AP-PCR was demonstrated by detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 70-80% of sputum, nasal, pharyngeal swabs and feces and 36% (4/11) of urine of the confirmed cases (n = 252), 7% convalescent cases (n = 54) and none of 300 negative cases. Lastly, AP-PCR analysis of 306 confirmed and convalescent cases revealed prolonged presence of viral loading for >20 days after the first positive diagnosis. Thus, the AP dually targeting SARS-CoV-2 RNA and RNase improves molecular detection by preserving SARS-CoV-2 RNA integrity and reveals the prolonged viral loading associated with older age and male gender in COVID-19 patients.