Cambridge Univ. researchers develop DNA test for COVID-19's secondary, hospital-acquired infections

DNA helix forming inside a test tube
The approach promises to be much faster than culturing bacterial samples in a lab, taking about four hours to pick up any of 52 different pathogens. (Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a DNA test to help spot dangerous secondary infections that may develop during COVID-19 treatment—such as cases of pneumonia associated with ventilator equipment provided during intensive care.

Patients under mechanical ventilation are typically given anti-inflammatory drugs to ease damage to their lungs, however this may leave them more susceptible to bacteria and fungi in the hospital.

The test, developed at Cambridge University Hospitals in collaboration with Public Health England, is designed to identify the infection and help suggest the appropriate course of antibiotics. 

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The approach—which promises to be much faster than culturing bacterial samples in a lab, taking about four hours total to pick up 52 different pathogens—is currently being rolled out to healthcare providers under the university’s NHS Foundation Trust.

"Early on in the pandemic we noticed that COVID-19 patients appeared to be particularly at risk of developing secondary pneumonia, and started using a rapid diagnostic test that we had developed for just such a situation," said Andrew Conway Morris, of Cambridge's department of medicine, who co-authored a paper examining the rates of ventilator-associated pneumonia among COVID-19 patients.

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"Using this test, we found that patients with COVID-19 were twice as likely to develop secondary pneumonia as other patients in the same intensive care unit," Morris said. As to the reason why, people with severe infections tend to spend more time on ventilators, and may also have poorly regulated or overactive immune system in the face of the virus.

It also marks one of the first times that high-throughput PCR sequencing has been employed in the university’s routine clinical practice in such a manner.

"We found that although patients with COVID-19 were more likely to develop secondary pneumonia, the bacteria that caused these infections were similar to those in ICU patients without COVID-19," said Cambridge researcher and lead study author Mailis Maes. "This means that standard antibiotic protocols can be applied to COVID-19 patients."