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Medical Laboratories Respond to Monkeypox Outbreak Using CDC-Developed Diagnostic Test

The federal agency shipped tests to five commercial clinical laboratory companies, augmenting efforts by public health labs

Medical laboratories in the US are ramping up their efforts to respond to an outbreak of monkeypox that has been spreading around the globe. Microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists will be interested to learn that this infectious agent—which is new to the US—may be establishing itself in the wild rodent population in this country. If proved to be true, it means Americans would be at risk of infection from contact with rodents as well as other people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on May 18 that it had identified the infection in a Massachusetts resident who had recently traveled to Canada. As of August 3, the federal agency was reporting 6,617 confirmed cases in the US.

Soon after the CDC’s initial announcement, public health labs belonging to the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network (LRN) were testing for the infection, according to an Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) press release. The LRN uses a CDC-developed test designed to detect Orthopoxviruses, the family that includes the monkeypox virus.

“Because there are no other non-variola orthopoxviruses circulating in the US, a positive test result is presumed to be monkeypox,” states the APHL press release.

Chris Mangal
“As we focus on the US response, we keep a close watch on the global outbreak. Infectious diseases don’t respect borders, as we know,” said Chris Mangal (above), director of public health preparedness and response, APHL, in a press release. “I am proud of how LRN member laboratories have rapidly and effectively responded to this emergency. This is precisely what the LRN was intended to do. Should this outbreak continue to grow, preparing for expanded testing and increasing capacity beyond LRN laboratories is important to ensuring we are ready for a surge in testing.” (Photo copyright: Association of Public Health Laboratories.)
 

 

Commercial Labs Get Involved

Seeking to bolster testing capacity, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced on June 22 that the CDC had begun shipping Orthopoxvirus PCR tests to five commercial lab companies. They include:

“By dramatically expanding the number of testing locations throughout the country, we are making it possible for anyone who needs to be tested to do so,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in an HHS press release.

Labcorp was first out of the gate, announcing on July 6 that it was offering the CDC-developed test for its customers, as well as accepting overflow from public labs. “We will initially perform all monkeypox testing in our main North Carolina lab and have the capacity to expand to other locations nationwide should the need arise,” said Labcorp chief medical officer and president Brian Caveney, MD, in a press release.

Mayo Clinic Laboratories followed suit on July 11, announcing that the clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology would perform the testing at its main facility in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Patients can access testing through Mayo Clinic healthcare professionals and will soon be able to access testing through healthcare professionals who use Mayo Clinic Laboratories as their reference laboratory,” Mayo stated in a press release.

Then, Quest Diagnostics announced on July 13 that it was testing for the virus with an internally developed PCR test, with plans to offer the CDC test in the first half of August.

The lab-developed test “was validated under CLIA federal regulations and is now performed at the company’s advanced laboratory in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.,” Quest stated in a press release.

Public Health Emergency?

Meanwhile, the CDC announced on June 28 that it had established an Emergency Operations Center to respond to the outbreak. A few weeks later, on July 23, World Health Organization (WHO) Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, declared that the outbreak represented “a public health emergency of international concern.”

He noted that international health regulations required him to consider five elements to make such a declaration.

“WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region where we assess the risk as high,” he said in a WHO news release. “There is also a clear risk of further international spread, although the risk of interference with international traffic remains low for the moment. So, in short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little, and which meets the criteria in the International Health Regulations.”

Still, public health authorities have made it clear that this is not a repeat of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Monkeypox virus is a completely different virus than the viruses that cause COVID-19 or measles,” the CDC stated in a June 9 advisory. “It is not known to linger in the air and is not transmitted during short periods of shared airspace. Monkeypox spreads through direct contact with body fluids or sores on the body of someone who has monkeypox, or with direct contact with materials that have touched body fluids or sores, such as clothing or linens. It may also spread through respiratory secretions when people have close, face-to-face contact.”

The New York Times reported that some experts disagreed with the CDC’s assessment that the virus “is not known to linger in the air.” But Professor of Environmental Health Donald Milton, MD, DrPH, of the University of Maryland, told The Times it is still “not nearly as contagious as the coronavirus.”

The Massachusetts resident who tested positive in May was not the first known case of monkeypox in the US, however, previous cases involved travel from countries where the disease is more common. Two cases in 2021—one in Texas and one in Maryland—involved US residents who had recently returned from Nigeria, the CDC reported. And a 2003 outbreak in the Midwest was linked to rodents and other small mammals imported to Texas from Ghana in West Africa.

Testing Procedures

The CDC has issued information for healthcare professionals, including guidelines for specimen collection, along with information for laboratory personnel who may be testing the specimens.

CNN reported on Aug. 4 that phlebotomists who work for Quest and Labcorp have refused to draw blood from suspected monkeypox patients.

“Labcorp and Quest don’t dispute that in many cases, their phlebotomists are not taking blood from possible monkeypox patients,” according to CNN. “What remains unclear, after company statements and follow-ups from CNN, is whether the phlebotomists are refusing on their own to take blood or if it is the company policy that prevents them. The two testing giants say they’re reviewing their safety policies and procedures for their employees.”

One symptom of monkeypox, the CDC states, is a rash resembling pimples or blisters. Clinicians are advised that two swabs should be collected from each skin lesion, though “procedures and materials used for collecting specimens may vary depending on the phase of the rash.”

“Effective communication and precautionary measures between specimen collection teams and laboratory staff are essential to maximizing safety when manipulating specimens suspected to contain monkeypox virus,” the CDC notes. “This is especially relevant in hospital settings, where laboratories routinely process specimens from patients with a variety of infectious and/or noninfectious conditions.” 

Perhaps the negative reaction to the CDC’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the US is driving the federal agency’s swift response to this new viral threat. Regardless, clinical laboratories and pathology groups will play a key role in the government’s plan to combat monkeypox in America.

Stephen Beale

Related Information:

CDC: Monkeypox

CDC and Health Partners Responding to Monkeypox Case in the US

CDC Activates Emergency Operations Center for Monkeypox Response

HHS Expanding Monkeypox Testing Capacity to Five Commercial Laboratory Companies

Labcorp to Begin Monkeypox Testing Today, Doubling Nationwide Testing Capacity

Labcorp First National Laboratory to Offer Monkeypox Test

Monkeypox (Orthopoxvirus), DNA, PCR Test

Mayo Clinic Laboratories to Begin Monkeypox Testing Today, Increasing Nationwide Testing Capacity

Mayo Clinic Laboratories Launches Monkeypox Test to Increase Access, Availability

Quest Now Offers a Test to Detect Monkeypox Virus DNA, Delivering Faster Answers for You and Your Patients

Quest Diagnostics to Begin Monkeypox Testing Today, Increasing Nationwide Testing Capacity

Quest Diagnostics Launches Monkeypox Virus Testing

APHL Supports Public Health Response to Monkeypox, Phased Expansion of Testing

World Health Organization: Monkeypox

Second Meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) Emergency Committee regarding the Multi-Country Outbreak of Monkeypox

WHO Director-General’s Statement at the Press Conference Following IHR Emergency Committee Regarding the Multi-Country Outbreak of Monkeypox

CDC Dismisses Airborne Transmission of Monkeypox. Some Experts Disagree.

We Let Monkeypox Spread for Too Long. If It Infects Our Pets, There’s No Getting Rid of It

Will Blowing in a Device Be Useful in Screening for COVID-19? FDA Grants Its First EUA for a Breathalyzer SARS-CoV-2 Screening Test

InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer identifies a chemical signature associated with SARS-CoV-2 in about three minutes with 91.2% sensitivity and 99.3% specificity

One company is hoping that it can make breathalyzers a viable, easier way to screen for SARS-CoV-2. It will soon have the opportunity to learn if consumers will accept this form of screening for COVID-19, as its device recently obtained an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.

On April 14, 2022, InspectIR Systems, LLC, of Frisco, Texas, was granted the US Food and Drug Administration’s first-ever emergency use authorization (EUA202006) for a portable breath test device designed to screen for SARS-CoV-2 infection. Clinical laboratories that perform COVID-19 testing will want to compare the high-level sensitivity of this breath test compared to rapid antigen tests currently used for COVID-19 screening.

The InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer uses gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify mixtures of five volatile organic compounds (VOCs) uniquely associated with the disease, the FDA said in a news release announcing the EUA.

The device is about the size of a carry-on suitcase. It provides test results in less than three minutes and is currently authorized for use with subjects who are 18 or older.

The FDA’s EUA limits use of the device to “a qualified, trained operator under the supervision of a healthcare provider licensed or authorized by state law to prescribe tests,” the federal agency said. The test “can be performed in environments where the patient specimen is both collected and analyzed, such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, and mobile testing sites.”

Jeffrey Shuren, MD, JD
The InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer device “is yet another example of the rapid innovation occurring with diagnostic tests for COVID-19,” said Jeffrey Shuren, MD, JD (above), director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), in the news release. A portable device that can identify SARS-CoV-2 infections in a few minutes with 91% specificity may be of great interest to clinical laboratory companies operating COVID-19 popup testing sites around the nation. (Photo copyright: US Food and Drug Administration.)

In granting the authorization, the FDA cited results of a study with 2,409 participants in which the test had sensitivity (correct positive results) of 91.2% and specificity (correct negative results) of 99.3%. “The test performed with similar sensitivity in a follow-up clinical study focused on the Omicron variant,” the agency stated.

“The FDA continues to support the development of novel COVID-19 tests with the goal of advancing technologies that can help address the current pandemic and better position the US for the next public health emergency,” said Jeffrey Shuren, MD, JD, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), in the news release.

In its coverage of the EUA, CNET noted that the InspectIR breath test is more sensitive than rapid antigen tests but not as sensitive as PCR tests. The FDA advised that people who receive a positive test result with the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer should follow up with a PCR molecular test.

How the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer Works

InspectIR LLC was founded in 2017 by Tim Wing and John Redmond, Forbes reported. Their original goal was to develop a breathalyzer for detection of cannabis or opioid use. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entrepreneurs decided to adapt the technology into a SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test.

Lacking a background in chemistry, they turned to Guido Verbeck, PhD, head of the University of North Texas Laboratory of Imaging Mass Spectrometry (UNT-LIMS) in Denton, Texas, to help develop the breath test.

As described in the FDA’s EUA documents, a subject breathes into the device using a sterilized one-time-use straw. A pre-concentrator collects and concentrates the five targeted VOCs, all from the ketone and aldehyde families of organic compounds. These go to a Residual Gas Analyzer, and an algorithm determines whether the sample contains the chemical signature associated with a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Redmond told Forbes that the specific mix of VOCs is proprietary. The article notes that Wing, Redmond, and Verbeck have patented the pre-concentrator technology.

The devices are manufactured at a Pfeiffer Vacuum Inc. facility in Indiana. The InspectIR founders told Forbes they expect to produce 100 units per week in a start-up phase with plans to ramp up as sales increase. They also plan to look at applications for other respiratory diseases.

InspectIR has not announced exact pricing, but Time reports that the company will lease the equipment to clients, and that pricing per test will be comparable to rapid antigen tests.

InspectIR’s first breathalyzer device is receiving much positive coverage from the media. Should it prove to effective at spotting COVID-19 at popup testing sites, it may supplant traditional clinical laboratory rapid antigen tests as the screening test of choice.   

Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Diagnostic Test Using Breath Samples

The First COVID-19 Breathalyzer Test Is Coming to the US

Frisco Startup Gets FDA Approval on COVID Breathalyzer after Teaming Up with UNT Researcher

Meet the Founders of the $2.7 Million Startup Behind the New COVID Breathalyzer

FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Breath Test

How a New Breath Test Could Make Mass COVID Testing Easier

FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Breath Test Meet the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer Test Just Authorized by the FDA

Mount Sinai Researchers Find That Antibodies Produced in Response to COVID-19 May Provide Long-term Immunity Against the Coronavirus

ELISA tests at Icahn School of Medicine contradict earlier studies which found that antibodies developed to combat the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus are short-lived

Medical laboratories at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic will be intrigued to learn that antibodies produced by the body to combat the coronavirus infection may actually provide long-term immunity, contrary to previous studies that found otherwise.

A recent study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that the protection may be more robust than previously believed. This may surprise many clinical laboratory scientists and clinical pathologists. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, multiple studies have been published with conflicting findings about the strength of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and the length of immunity provided after an infection.

In a Mount Sinai news release, however, Florian Krammer, PhD, microbiologist and Professor of Vaccinology in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a senior author of the paper, said, “While some reports have come out saying antibodies to this virus go away quickly, we have found just the opposite—that more than 90% of people who were mildly or moderately ill produce an antibody response strong enough to neutralize the virus, and the response is maintained for many months.”

The researchers published the findings of their study—which was based on an internally-developed antibody test—in Science.

The study concludes, “Although this cannot provide conclusive evidence that these antibody responses protect from reinfection, we believe it is very likely that they will decrease the odds ratio of reinfection and may attenuate disease in the case of breakthrough infection. We believe it is imperative to swiftly perform studies to investigate and establish a correlate of protection from infection with SARS-CoV-2.”

Florian Krammer, PhD
Florian Krammer, PhD (above), runs the Krammer Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He noted that the longevity and neutralizing effects of antibody response are “critically important to enabling us to effectively monitor seroprevalence in communities, and to determining the duration and levels of antibody that protect us from reinfection.” Antibody response, he added, is also “essential for effective vaccine development.” (Photo copyright: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.)

Details of the Icahn School of Medicine Study

The study arose from an effort by Mount Sinai to identify potential donors for a convalescent plasma therapy program. Beginning in late March, the health system used an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to screen thousands of individuals for presence of antibodies to the spike protein in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus uses the spike protein to bind to a receptor in host cells, the researchers noted, making it “the main, and potentially only target for neutralizing antibodies.”

Screened patients either had confirmed cases of COVID-19, as determined by a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, or suspected cases, “defined as being told by a physician that symptoms may be related to SARS-CoV-2 or exposure to someone with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the researchers wrote. The Mount Sinai health system also offered the test to employees.

Samples from each person were diluted in five discrete titers (concentrations) ranging from 1:80 to 1:2880, and each was tested for detectable presence of the antibodies. This allowed the researchers to categorize the samples as low, moderate, or high:

  • Low titers: 1:80 or 1:160
  • Moderate titers: 1:320
  • High titers: 1:960 or >1:2880

Between the start of the program and early October, the health system screened 72,401 people, of whom 30,082 tested positive for at least the lowest levels of antibodies. Among those who tested positive, a large majority fell into the moderate or high categories:

  • 1:80: 690 (2.29%)
  • 1:160: 1453 (4.83%)
  • 1:320: 6765 (22.49%)
  • 1:960: 9564 (31.79%)
  • 1:2880: 11610 (38.60%)

The researchers also wanted to see whether the antibodies offered actual protection against the virus. So, they selected 120 samples and ran a quantitative microneutralization assay. In the lowest of the three categories, 50% of the samples showed neutralizing activity. That rose to 90% in the moderate category and 100% in the high category.

Finally, to determine how long protection might last, the researchers recalled 121 plasma donors for additional tests at two different points during the study. The researchers reported a slight drop in antibody levels about three months after onset of symptoms, and then a larger drop after five months. But antibodies were still present in most samples.

“It is still unclear if infection with SARS-CoV-2 in humans protects from reinfection and for how long,” the researchers wrote. “We know from work with common human coronaviruses that neutralizing antibodies are induced, and these antibodies can last for years and provide protection from reinfection or attenuate disease, even if individuals get reinfected.”

Previous ‘Conflicting’ Research

As previously noted, other studies raised doubts about the longevity of the antibodies produced by the body’s immune system. For example, the Mount Sinai researchers cited a study from China published in Nature Medicine that looked at the immune responses of 37 symptomatic patients and an equal number of asymptomatic individuals with laboratory-confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease. In the latter group, 40% had no detectable levels of IgG antibodies after eight weeks.

The study also found a decrease in neutralizing antibodies in 30 of the asymptomatic individuals (81.1%) and 23 of the symptomatic individuals (62.2%) over the same period.

However, the Mount Sinai researchers pointed out that the antibody test in the Chinese study targeted a different protein. “The same paper also reported relatively stable (slightly declining) neutralizing antibody titers, which shows much higher concordance with our present findings,” they wrote. “Thus, the stability of the antibody response over time may also depend on the target antigen.”

A different study from England saw a 26% decline in antibodies over three months, CNN reported. That study, conducted by Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI, a market research firm, was based on responses from more than 365,000 randomly selected people who had self-administered a lateral flow antibody test.

But the seemingly conflicting studies from New York and the UK may not be contradictory, CNN reported. “People’s bodies produce an army of immune compounds in response to an infection and some are overwhelming at first, dying off quickly, while others build up more slowly. Measurements that show a waning antibody response in the first months after infection might be measuring this first wave—but there’s a second team building its forces in the background.”

In the same CNN report, Ania Wajnberg, MD, Director of Clinical Antibody Testing at Mount Sinai Hospital and co-author of the Icahn Mount Sinai study, said, “The serum antibody titer we measured in individuals initially were likely produced by plasmablasts—cells that act as first responders to an invading virus and come together to produce initial bouts of antibodies whose strength soon wanes.”

She added, “The sustained antibody levels that we subsequently observed are likely produced by long-lived plasma cells in the bone marrow. This is similar to what we see in other viruses and likely means they are here to stay. We will continue to follow this group over time to see if these levels remain stable as we suspect and hope they will.”

Does this mean that most people who get infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus will retain an immunity to the disease? Maybe. In the Icahn Mount Sanai study, Florian Kramer wrote, “More than 90% of people who were mildly or moderately ill produce an antibody response strong enough to neutralize the virus, and the response is maintained for many months.”

Thus, clinical laboratories engaged in serological testing may be asked to perform follow-up antibody tests to see if we do indeed create long-term immunity to COVID-19. Further, pathologists and medical laboratory scientists will want to follow future studies published in peer-reviewed journals to see if the findings of the Mount Sinai study are replicated at other sites.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Most People Mount a Strong Antibody Response to SARS-CoV-2 That Does Not Decline Rapidly

Robust Neutralizing Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 Infection Persist for Months

In Study of 30,000 Mild-To-Moderate COVID-19 Patients, Antibody Responses Can Persist for Five Months

Immunity to Coronavirus Lingers for Months, Study Finds

British Study Shows Evidence of Waning Immunity to COVID-19

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