A new lab test can quickly and easily identify which variant of the virus causing COVID-19 has infected a person, an advance expected to greatly assist health officials tracking the disease and physicians treating infected patients. The test uses employ so-called molecular beacons to seeks out molecules that carry genetic information to make proteins.
The molecular beacon technology involves microscopic, biochemical probes so precise they can distinguish among different gene-sequence targets that differ by only a single chemical base. Once the probes latch on to the target, they become fluorescent — serving as beacons for scientists scouring the genetic soup of viral particles. The test will be made freely available to other labs.
Several COVID-focused PCR tests have been developed earlier, but they target only single mutations in the “spike” protein, which leads the virus’s attack on human cells, and can’t discriminate between many variants circulating in the population. The Rutgers test detects eight different mutations in the spike protein – ones that have been demonstrated to increase the transmissibility of the virus and evade the human body’s immune defenses.
Because such mutations are likely to be conserved in new emerging variants, the scientists expect the test will be useful for detecting new variants that arise from a new combination of mutations.