These Researchers Tested Positive. But the Virus Wasn’t the Cause

Coronavirus Test Kits Sent to States Are Flawed, C.D.C. Says - The New York  Times

Five geneticists working with the coronavirus’s genome at the Harvard University lab of Dr George Church (one of the founders of the Human Genome Project) and exposed to snippets of its DNA not in themselves infectious tested positive on the widely used coronavirus test made by the Broad Institute in Cambridge when they underwent routine swabs. Unfortunately, the pieces of the pathogen’s genetic materials with which they were working in the lab were the pieces of the viral genome that the coronavirus test targeted.

‘ “I guess it is probably somewhat embarrassing,” Dr. Wannier said. (Out of an abundance of caution, he, his colleagues and their close contacts still isolated or quarantined themselves.) But given the nature of his lab’s ongoing projects, he added, “something like this was bound to happen at some point.”

Contaminated positives such as these are extremely rare, health experts said. People outside the research community should not worry about their own test results being compromised by lab chemicals. Blame also should not be pinned on the test, which did its intended job of rooting out the virus’s genetic material…’

Contaminations, as opposed to true infections, have been more and more frequent given the number of researchers studying the coronavirus. When they occur, they disrupt classes and research productivity and impact emotional wellbeing.

‘The contamination events played out similarly at several institutions. The Church lab, where five people have tested positive, was among the earliest. Nine scientists in three separate research groups at the neighboring Wyss Institute were soon to follow, as well as two members of a lab at M.I.T. run by the Crispr scientist Feng Zhang. Some 50 miles south, 10 people at Brown University suffered a similar experience shortly after the campus reopened for fall term. Six more such cases have been identified at Cornell…

New York Times

Surveying their labs, researchers found that wayward bits of the DNA with which they worked had made their way onto equipment, sinks, door handles, backpacks, clothing and in some cases had hitchhiked home on the researchers contaminating family members. The Church lab has since switched to working on a different fragment of the viral genome to avoid overlap with the Broad test.

(One potential pitfall I see in this situation is that, once a positive Coronavirus test result in a researcher or researchers at a lab has been determined to be from contamination rather than infection, subsequent positive surveillance testing might be discounted or ignored and true infections missed, with potentially dire consequences.)

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