The early symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory diseases, including the seasonal flu and common cold, making it difficult for patients and health care workers to take the proper measures. Nucleic acid-based quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) remains the gold standard for detecting the identity of the pathogenic RNA viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19. Currently, the Windsor-Essex region and most communities in Ontario suffer from insufficient testing capabilities. However, major challenges to increasing testing capacity include diagnostic reliability (overcoming the many false positive and false negative results) and accounting for the rapid mutational rate of RNA viruses. Therefore, a priority must be placed on establishing a reliable diagnostic standard to validate qRT-PCR-based COVID-19 diagnostic kits from different manufacturers. The goal of this project is to engineer a homogenous, stable, non-infectious, and economic qRT-PCR standard for SARS-CoV-2 detection using armored RNA technology. In collaboration with a Canadian Biotechnology company, SM Research Inc. (SMR), we will take advantage of the MS2 bacteriophage to generate virus-like particles (VLPs) that encapsulate precisely one RNA per particle. The encapsulated RNA will encode the components of SARS-CoV-2 viral genes of choice.
The VLPs armored RNA will provide a critical qRT-PCR standard to validate all nucleic acid-based COVID-19 diagnostic kits on the market. This will aid in reducing the strains on the COVID-19 testing capacity of the South-Western Ontario region. It will further provide an adaptable platform to detect and identify other RNA viruses that cause respiratory diseases, including seasonal influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and many other emerging public health threats in the Windsor-Essex region.