Nat Commun 11 (1) 4812 [2020-09-23; online 2020-09-23]
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is commonly diagnosed by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) to detect viral RNA in patient samples, but RNA extraction constitutes a major bottleneck in current testing. Methodological simplification could increase diagnostic availability and efficiency, benefitting patient care and infection control. Here, we describe methods circumventing RNA extraction in COVID-19 testing by performing RT-PCR directly on heat-inactivated or lysed samples. Our data, including benchmarking using 597 clinical patient samples and a standardised diagnostic system, demonstrate that direct RT-PCR is viable option to extraction-based tests. Using controlled amounts of active SARS-CoV-2, we confirm effectiveness of heat inactivation by plaque assay and evaluate various generic buffers as transport medium for direct RT-PCR. Significant savings in time and cost are achieved through RNA-extraction-free protocols that are directly compatible with established PCR-based testing pipelines. This could aid expansion of COVID-19 testing.