BACKGROUND. Circulating severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA may represent a more reliable indicator of infection than nasal RNA, but quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) lacks diagnostic sensitivity for blood samples. METHODS. A CRISPR-augmented RT-PCR assay that sensitively detects SARS-CoV-2 RNA was employed to analyze viral RNA kinetics in longitudinal plasma samples from nonhuman primates (NHPs) after virus exposure; to evaluate the utility of blood SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) diagnosis in adults cases confirmed by nasal/ nasopharyngeal swab RT-PCR results; and to identify suspected COVID-19 cases in pediatric and at-risk adult populations with negative nasal swab RT-qPCR results. All blood samples were analyzed by RT-qPCR to allow direct comparisons. RESULTS. CRISPR-augmented RT-PCR consistently detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the plasma of experimentally infected NHPs from 1 to 28 days after infection, and these increases preceded and correlated with rectal swab viral RNA increases. In a patient cohort (n = 159), this blood-based assay demonstrated 91.2% diagnostic sensitivity and 99.2% diagnostic specificity versus a comparator RT-qPCR nasal/nasopharyngeal test, whereas RT-qPCR exhibited 44.1% diagnostic sensitivity and 100% specificity for the same blood samples. This CRISPR-augmented RT-PCR assay also accurately identified patients with COVID-19 using one or more negative nasal swab RT-qPCR results. CONCLUSION. Results of this study indicate that sensitive detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in blood by CRISPR-augmented RT-PCR permits accurate COVID-19 diagnosis, and can detect COVID-19 cases with transient or negative nasal swab RT-qPCR results, suggesting that this approach could improve COVID-19 diagnosis and the evaluation of SARS-CoV-2 infection clearance, and predict the severity of infection.
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