Hackensack Meridian Health’s Center for Discovery and Innovation Develops Advanced Test to Track and Diagnose COVID-19 Variants

April 1, 2021

New rapid high-throughput test detects E484K COVID-19 mutation in hospital and care settings across New Jersey

Experts at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) have developed a high-throughput test that can detect multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in two-and-a-half hours, a major advance in tracking the virus and in treating patients.

The test can detect the known UK, Brazil, and South African variants, as well as others containing the key E484K mutation, which are gaining prominence as the virus evolves. The global health community is in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible as variants threaten to create new surges. The study, which was co-authored with scientists from the New York Genome Center, was published online in medRxiv.

“The Center for Discovery and Innovation is again leading the way in creating breakthroughs that will help defeat this pandemic,” said Robert C. Garrett, FACHE, the chief executive officer of Hackensack Meridian Health. “The CDI was created for this purpose – to deliver effective solutions in real-time that will benefit patients, our communities and well beyond.”

The results likely indicate that variants are increasing in prevalence in hospitals and communities across New Jersey – and that mass vaccination is more important than ever, since the vaccines remain effective against all forms of SARS-CoV-2 to date.

“Certain virus variants are concerning because they are resistant or less responsive to current first-line treatments involving monoclonal antibody cocktails,” said David Perlin, PhD., the chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the CDI.  “Our rapid through-put test allows doctors to treat those with COVID-19 who have specific variants with more effective therapies.”

The CDI’s test, which assessed samples from New Jersey patients from December 2020 through February 2021, found the virus variants increasing in prominence. Among 435 nasal swab samples at eight hospitals and other care sites across the Hackensack Meridian Health network, the E484K variant was found at a rate of 12 percent of all samples in February 2021. The N501Y variant followed in prevalence in 2021 with 11 percent.

These findings are from a variety of care settings within Hackensack Meridian Health and located throughout New Jersey.  Since the variants were detected in multiple locations, it’s highly likely that the variants are going undetected in other parts of the state.

These “immune-escape” variants carrying the E484K mutation are also concerning because they have been linked in other countries with re-infection.

While the E484K mutation appears to make the virus resistant to certain treatments, like particular monoclonal antibodies, the major COVID-19 vaccines are still broadly effective against preventing severe disease. Vaccination is still key to beating COVID-19, according to Perlin.

A real-time understanding of viral evolution and the landscape of virus variants in our region is part of an overall strategy, along with testing and vaccination, to help our community and patients overcome COVID-19.

The CDI has sequenced more than 2,500 viruses and is working with the State of New Jersey to develop the most complete picture of the viral landscape yet assembled. This new high-throughput tool allows resources for whole genome sequencing to be directed against the most concerning viruses.

The other tools developed by Hackensack Meridian Health over the last year of pandemic response which have helped to turn the tide include:

  • The first rapid commercial COVID-19 test, reducing the wait time for results from days to hours (also the work of the CDI).
  • A convalescent plasma treatment utilizing antibodies from people with high concentrations of antibodies – “super donors” – to treat hospitalized patients
  • Participation in national clinical trials to develop COVID-19 vaccines, including the Moderna and J&J trials.
  • Vaccination mega-site launched at the former Meadowlands Racetrack in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Health, State Police and National Guard, which is vaccinating 4,000 patients daily.
  • To date, the entire network has administered more than 300,000 vaccines.
  • Developed Keeping America Safe: Hackensack Meridian Health‘s Assist Program which helps business owners and schools create a safe environment.