Amplicon-based detection and sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 in nasopharyngeal swabs from patients with COVID-19 and identification of deletions in the viral genome

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the causative agent of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Sequencing the viral genome as the outbreak progresses is important, particularly in the identification of emerging isolates with different pathogenic potential and to identify whether nucleotide changes in the genome will impair clinical diagnostic tools such as real-time PCR assays. Although single nucleotide polymorphisms and point mutations occur during the replication of coronaviruses, one of the biggest drivers in genetic change is recombination. This can manifest itself in insertions and/or deletions in the viral genome. Therefore, sequencing strategies that underpin molecular epidemiology and inform virus biology in patients should take these factors into account.

A long amplicon/read length-based RT-PCR sequencing approach focused on the Oxford Nanopore MinION/GridION platforms was developed to identify and sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome in samples from patients with or suspected of COVID-19. The protocol, termed Rapid Sequencing Long Amplicons (RSLAs) used random primers to generate cDNA from RNA purified from a sample from a patient, followed by single or multiplex PCRs to generate longer amplicons of the viral genome. The base protocol was used to identify SARS-CoV-2 in a variety of clinical samples and proved sensitive in identifying viral RNA in samples from patients that had been declared negative using other nucleic acid-based assays (false negative). Sequencing the amplicons revealed that a number of patients had a proportion of viral genomes with deletions.

Authors: Shona C. Moore, Rebekah Penrice-Randal, Muhannad Alruwaili, Nadine Randle, Stuart Armstrong, Catherine Hartley, Sam Haldenby, Xiaofeng Dong, Abdulrahman Alrezaihi, Mai Almsaud, Eleanor Bentley, Jordan Clark, Isabel García-Dorival, Paul Gilmore, Ximeng Han, Benjamin Jones, Lisa Luu, Parul Sharma, Ghada Shawli, Yani Sun, Qin Zhao, Steven T. Pullan, Daniel P. Carter, Kevin Bewley, Jake Dunning, En-min Zhou, Tom Solomon, Michael Beadsworth, James Cruise, Derrick W. Crook, David A. Matthews, Andrew D. Davidson, Zana Mahmood, Waleed Aljabr, Julian Druce, Richard Vipond, Lisa Ng, Laurent Renia, Peter J. M. Openshaw, J. Kenneth Baillie, Miles W. Carroll, James Stewart, Alistair Darby, Malcolm Semple, Lance Turtle, Julian A. Hiscox