The Indispensable Role of UTM in the COVID-19 Battle
The Indispensable Role of UTM in the COVID-19 Battle

The Indispensable Role of UTM in the COVID-19 Battle

COVID-19 - laboratory team working in the lab

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of diagnostic testing to identify infections and contain outbreaks. An unsung hero that has enabled widespread testing is the viral transport medium (VTM), specifically universal transport medium (UTM). UTM allows safe collection and transportation of patient samples like nasal and throat swabs to laboratories for analysis. As the research team at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia discovered, UTM was invaluable for conducting reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests to detect SARS-CoV-2.

The team evaluated a portable RT-PCR system from Biomeme for rapidly diagnosing COVID-19. To validate the accuracy of the system, they tested nasal pharyngeal swabs from 173 patients that were collected in UTM tubes. The portable PCR device successfully analyzed the UTM samples, detecting SARS-CoV-2 in 91 cases. Results matched standard lab-based PCR testing, demonstrating that UTM reliably preserved the samples.

Additionally, the team collected fresh nasal swabs from 19 more patients. One nostril swab was immediately tested using the Biomeme system at point-of-care, while the other nostril swab was placed in UTM and sent to the central laboratory for standard PCR testing. The portable and lab PCR tests showed 95% agreement, confirming that UTM protected sample integrity so results reflected the actual infection status.

UTM Quality Control

The researchers explicitly mentioned how UTM enabled their study. Nasal pharyngeal samples were “collected in viral transport medium” consisting of “Miraclean Technology Co. UTM.” This UTM from Mantacc preserved viral RNA for reliable PCR testing. By sponsoring the Riyadh team’s supply of properly formulated UTM, Mantacc played a silent but vital role supporting COVID-19 diagnostics.

Furthermore, the study hit a major snag initially because they used stored UTM samples from prior cases instead of freshly collected swabs. In ten cases or 10%, the portable PCR system failed to detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA due to degraded samples. However, retesting freshly collected UTM samples solved this issue.

This finding highlights the quality control value of UTM for molecular diagnostics. UTM formulation must balance preserving nucleic acids while inactivating live viruses to render samples safe for handling. Suboptimal UTM could produce inaccurate test results and endanger laboratory personnel. The failure with frozen archived samples also shows UTM medium is not intended for long-term storage. Fortunately, the Riyadh team’s remaining cases with newly procured UTM from Mantacc demonstrated excellent RNA stability at room temperature during transit to enable successful PCR analysis.

UTM Shortage Crisis

Another aspect raised by the researchers related to global shortages of equipment needed for PCR-based COVID-19 diagnosis, including UTM. As they described, adequate inventory of properly formulated UTM was essential for collecting patient swabs and safely transporting samples to laboratories with testing capabilities. However, the skyrocketing demand for tests quickly depleted UTM stockpiles.

Public health authorities recognized shortages of UTM and other materials threatened to limit COVID-19 testing capacity. In response, medical manufacturers like Mantacc ramped up UTM production. Some labs also prepared their own UTM or used alternative media like saline. Guaranteeing an adequate pipeline of UTM ensured testing capacity stayed ahead of burgeoning case loads to help contain spread. The UTM shortage experience teaches that sufficient diagnostic resources must remain available before future epidemics strike so immediate testing can deploy.

In their study, the scientists even suggested nasal swabs without UTM might allow simpler COVID-19 screening. However, the RNA quickly degrades unless rapidly analyzed onsite. So while direct dry swabbing could expand patient access and screening in advanced facilities, reliable UTM is essential for broad PCR-based testing capability. Ultimately, UTM provides the flexibility to safely collect samples anywhere for centralized high-complexity analysis.

Decentralized Testing Solution

Another major barrier for containing COVID-19 was expanding diagnostic access, as the study authors observed. Centralized testing using sophisticated laboratories created bottlenecks, with overwhelming case loads producing delays obtaining results. The lack of infrastructure in remote areas also prevented local testing so samples had to ship to distant cities, enabling undetected viral spread.

The Biomeme portable PCR device offered a solution for decentralized testing. The all-in-one kit performed rapid sample processing and analysis in minimally equipped settings. When combined with the Mantacc UTM for collecting and transporting specimens, the platform provided point-of-care testing to deliver actionable results within hours instead of days.

The scientists validated this approach by deploying the Biomeme system and Mantacc UTM to test suspected cases that arrived at the emergency department. They obtained COVID-19 diagnosis for 4 ER patients within 80 minutes compared to 1-2 days typically required. This allowed promptly isolating infected individuals to block further transmission, demonstrating the value of patient-proximal testing.

While hospitals and clinics may adopt decentralized testing platforms like Biomeme’s portable analyzer, UTM remains essential for field surveillance and screening by public health personnel or even at-home sample collection. In these cases, UTM safeguards samples until they reach a testing facility. With innovations like Biomeme and Mantacc UTM, responding agencies can establish local pop-up labs during outbreaks to closely monitor community spread.

Preparedness for New Outbreaks

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled medical innovation, but also revealed vulnerabilities in healthcare systems for tackling infectious diseases. Diagnostics developers have engineered rapid point-of-care platforms like Biomeme’s transportable PCR unit. Meanwhile, UTM manufacturers enhanced supply chains and production capacity to deliver reliable VTM enabling sample transport to laboratories for sensitive molecular testing.

However, the greatest lesson is the need for proactive preparedness. As the researchers emphasized, sufficient infrastructure and diagnostic resources must exist before epidemics emerge. Public health systems should stockpile critical supplies like UTM to deploy immediate widescale testing when novel pathogens arise. Accurate PCR and antigen diagnostics require properly handling and preserving real-world specimens. So public-private partnerships are vital for companies like Mantacc to guarantee UTM availability whenever its essential sample-protecting capability is urgently needed. Comprehensive readiness along with innovative diagnostics will ensure society responds effectively when the next infectious threat inevitably surfaces.

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Zowawi HM, Alenazi TH, AlOmaim WS, Wazzan A, Alsufayan A, Hasanain RA, Aldibasi OS, Althawadi S, Altamimi SA, Mutabagani M, Alamri M, Almaghrabi RS, Al-Abdely HM, Memish ZA, Alqahtani SA. Portable RT-PCR System: a Rapid and Scalable Diagnostic Tool for COVID-19 Testing. J Clin Microbiol. 2021 Apr 20;59(5):e03004-20. doi: 10.1128/JCM.03004-20. PMID: 33674285; PMCID: PMC8091859.

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