A Beginner’s Guide to PCR Testing

With a definitive cure or vaccine still unavailable to the public, healthcare professionals have advised that at the moment, mass testing is the most ideal strategy in controlling the coronavirus outbreak. Last April 24, the The Inter-Agency Task Force – National Task Force (IATF-NTF) and the DOH have announced that the RT-PCR testing for COVID-19 will be significantly expanded. From the current average of 4,500 PCR tests conducted per day, the government wishes to be able to do at least 30,000 tests per day by May 30, 2020. As the most trusted method both by the DOH and most medical professionals, what exactly is PCR testing and why is it deemed by medical experts as the most reliable testing method?

PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction and has been a recognized and widely used molecular method since the 1980’s. It allows those at the lab to extract from swab samples and extract a viral genetic material called RNA. This material is necessary to create a complimentary strand of DNA which is crucial for the next stage. Extraction usually takes less than 30 minutes.

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The COVID-19 virus has 30,000 nucleotides, the sort of building blocks that composes the RNA and DNA. According to a study done by researchers in the Clinical Virology Laboratory at UW Medicine, there are 100 nucleotides that are unique in the COVID-19 virus. Within those 100 nucleotides, there are specific genes that the PCR method will look for to definitively determine the presence of the virus.

The constructed DNA strand from the extraction process will be amplified through a technique called reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Through amplification, the PCR machine makes thousands of copies of the DNA strand to make it measurable and easier to study. PCR machines differ in which specific COVID-19 genes they would target (RdRp gene, N gene, E gene). If two or more of these genes are confirmed to be within the sample, the person under investigation is verified to be a carrier of the coronavirus disease.

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The DOH relies on PCR method for confirmatory COVID-19 testing.What makes the PCR testing the method of choice for most medical professionals is that it is both specific and sensitive, with most PCR machines’s sensitivity and specificity being 90% and above . This is why, in accordance to the guidelines released by DOH, rapid antibody tests must still be conducted in conjunction with PCR tests. The level of accuracy it offers is greatly needed, especially at a time where diagnostic certainty is at its most crucial.

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