VMRD Mask Testing Can Prevent Spread of COVID-19

Testing has become a critical tool to slow the spread of COVID-19, but some individuals who have unknowingly been infected, but never show symptoms, may never get tested and could potentially infect others.

Veterinary diagnostics company VMRD, Inc., based in Washington state, has come up with a method to collect samples from used masks that can detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus shed by affected individuals, even those who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. The testing method, known as CovMaT (Coronavirus Mask Testing), relies on a unique fluid preservative developed by Maryland-based Longhorn Vaccines & Diagnostics to deliver accurate results. Testing for virus particles in masks can prevent workplace spread of COVID-19 before an office or facility becomes a point of viral outbreak. The early discovery of potential infections will allow an employee who may have pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic traces of the virus to isolate and not spread their infection and force a shutdown of the business. VMRD filed for patent protection on its CovMaT testing process and is looking to roll it out to the public over the next few months.

Dr. Siddra Hines, a VMRD veterinary scientist, said the idea is to maintain surveillance of a facility through testing of the bits of mask to ensure that the virus is “not floating around” and pose a risk to the health of coworkers. At the end of each shift where this process is deployed, small samples from a disposable mask that has been worn throughout the workday would be collected, placed in individual tubes with the unique fluid preservative. PrimeStore MTM is validated for antigen testing and is the first-of-its-kind extraction-less qPCR sample collection device. Using PrimeStore MTM will both inactivate any virus on the mask and stabilize the genetic material, allowing the samples to be safely shipped off to a lab for testing. The labs would then use existing PCR testing methods to test the samples for traces of the SARS-COV-2 virus.

“It’s a new sample type, but the (testing) process is old,” Hines said.

Currently, the testing is meant to be conducted on used disposable surgical masks or n95 masks. It is not yet designed for use with washable, fabric masks due to the necessity of cutting out a piece of material from the mask. Hines said masks are a ready source of testing samples and the results of finding minute traces of the virus on them speak for themselves.

VMRD’s early detection method for SARS-CoV-2 has shown a high correlation between the testing and a subsequent clinical diagnosis of COVID-19 in associated individuals. However, mask-based testing does not replace the necessity of individual diagnostic testing that has been ongoing during the pandemic. Much like traditional PCR testing, it takes a few days for results to be revealed.

Dr. Hines herself can speak firsthand to the accuracy of her company’s testing method. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 in September. But, before she developed any symptoms, surveillance testing of her mask sample detected the virus. She was notified of the results and a subsequent test performed by her physician confirmed that she was carrying the virus. Within a few days, Hines said she began showing symptoms.

“I never would have set off any flags before those symptoms. I had no fever, no cough, but they found the virus from my mask. I came up with a full blown case a few days after,” Hines said.

VMRD, which is best known for veterinary diagnostic test kits and related reagents, entered into the COVID space earlier this year. Hines said the company has a strong record packaging materials to be shipped, such as diagnostic kits, and at first used that as a means to help out. But, VMRD wanted to make sure that its employees were not inadvertently spreading the virus among themselves or to its customers, so it came up with the CovMaT solution. The company wanted to harness its own expertise in diagnostics to benefit not only the biopharmaceutical industry, but the overall economy by providing a surveillance method that protects against outbreaks.

“The most important part of this is the impact it can have by preventing workplace exposure and spread. It decreases the likelihood of people being in an environment where someone could be exposed to infection,” said Dr. Hines.

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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.