Hackensack Meridian Health develops test to track, diagnose COVID-19 variants


NEPTUNE — Experts at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) have developed a high-throughput test that can detect multiple variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in two-and-a-half hours, a major advance in tracking the virus and in treating patients.

The test can detect the known UK, Brazil, and South African variants, as well as others containing the key E484K mutation, which are gaining prominence as the virus evolves. The global health community is in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible as variants threaten to create new surges. The study, which was co-authored with scientists from the New York Genome Center, was published online in medRxiv.

“The Center for Discovery and Innovation is again leading the way in creating breakthroughs that will help defeat this pandemic,’’ said Robert C. Garrett, FACHE, the chief executive officer of Hackensack Meridian Health. “The CDI was created for this purpose – to deliver effective solutions in real-time that will benefit patients, our communities and well beyond.’’

The results likely indicate that variants are increasing in prevalence in hospitals and communities across New Jersey – and that mass vaccination is more important than ever, since the vaccines remain effective against all forms of SARS-CoV-2 to date.

“Certain virus variants are concerning because they are resistant or less responsive to current first-line treatments involving monoclonal antibody cocktails,” said David Perlin, PhD., the chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the CDI. “Our rapid through-put test allows doctors to treat those with COVID-19 who have specific variants with more effective therapies."

The CDI’s test, which assessed samples from New Jersey patients from December 2020 through February 2021, found the virus variants increasing in prominence. Among 435 nasal swab samples at eight hospitals and other care sites across the Hackensack Meridian Health network, the E484K variant was found at a rate of 12 percent of all samples in February 2021. The N501Y variant followed in prevalence in 2021 with 11 percent.

These findings are from a variety of care settings within Hackensack Meridian Health and located throughout New Jersey. Since the variants were detected in multiple locations, it’s highly likely that the variants are going undetected in other parts of the state.

These "immune-escape" variants carrying the E484K mutation are also concerning because they have been linked in other countries with re-infection.

While the E484K mutation appears to make the virus resistant to certain treatments, like particular monoclonal antibodies, the major COVID-19 vaccines are still broadly effective against preventing severe disease. Vaccination is still key to beating COVID-19, according to Perlin.

A real-time understanding of viral evolution and the landscape of virus variants in our region is part of an overall strategy, along with testing and vaccination, to help our community and patients overcome COVID-19.


The CDI has sequenced more than 2,500 viruses and is working with the State of New Jersey to develop the most complete picture of the viral landscape yet assembled. This new high-throughput tool allows resources for whole genome sequencing to be directed against the most concerning viruses.

The other tools developed by Hackensack Meridian Health over the last year of pandemic response which have helped to turn the tide include:

• The first rapid commercial COVID-19 test, reducing the wait time for results from days to hours (also the work of the CDI).

• A convalescent plasma treatment utilizing antibodies from people with high concentrations of antibodies – “superdonors’’ – to treat hospitalized patients

• Participation in national clinical trials to develop COVID-19 vaccines, including the Moderna and J&J trials.

• Vaccination mega-site launched at the former Meadowlands Racetrack in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Health, State Police and National Guard, which is vaccinating 4,000 patients daily.

• To date, the entire network has administered more than 300,000 vaccines.

• Developed Keeping America Safe: Hackensack Meridian Health’s Assist Program which helps business owners and schools create a safe environment.

ABOUT HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH
Hackensack Meridian Health is a leading not-for-profit health care organization that is the largest, most comprehensive and truly integrated health care network in New Jersey, offering a complete range of medical services, innovative research and life-enhancing care.

Hackensack Meridian Health comprises 17 hospitals from Bergen to Ocean counties, which includes three academic medical centers – Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, JFK Medical Center in Edison; two children’s hospitals - Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital in Hackensack, K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital in Neptune; nine community hospitals – Bayshore Medical Center in Holmdel, Mountainside Medical Center in Montclair, Ocean Medical Center in Brick, Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, Pascack Valley Medical Center in Westwood, Raritan Bay Medical Center in Old Bridge, Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, and Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin; a behavioral health hospital – Carrier Clinic in Belle Mead; and two rehabilitation hospitals - JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison and Shore Rehabilitation Institute in Brick.

Additionally, the network has more than 500 patient care locations throughout the state which include ambulatory care centers, surgery centers, home health services, long-term care and assisted living communities, ambulance services, lifesaving air medical transportation, fitness and wellness centers, rehabilitation centers, urgent care centers and physician practice locations. Hackensack Meridian Health has more than 36,000 team members, and 7,000 physicians and is a distinguished leader in health care philanthropy, committed to the health and well-being of the communities it serves.

The network’s notable distinctions include having four of its hospitals are among the top hospitals in New Jersey for 2020-21, according to U.S. News & World Report. Additionally, the health system has more top-ranked hospitals than any system in New Jersey. Children’s Health is again ranked a top provider of pediatric health care in the United States and earned top 50 rankings in the annual U.S. News’ 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals report. Other honors include consistently achieving Magnet® recognition for nursing excellence from the American Nurses Credentialing Center and being named to Becker’s Healthcare’s “150 Top Places to Work in Healthcare/2019” list.

The Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, the first private medical school in New Jersey in more than 50 years, welcomed its first class of students in 2018 to its campus in Nutley and Clifton. The Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI), housed in a fully renovated state-of-the-art facility, seeks to translate current innovations in science to improve clinical outcomes for patients with cancer, infectious diseases and other life-threatening and disabling conditions.

Additionally, the network partnered with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to find more cures for cancer faster while ensuring that patients have access to the highest quality, most individualized cancer care when and where they need it.

Hackensack Meridian Health is a member of AllSpire Health Partners, an interstate consortium of leading health systems, to focus on the sharing of best practices in clinical care and achieving efficiencies.

To learn more, visit www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org.

About the Center for Discovery and Innovation
The Center for Discovery and Innovation, a newly established member of Hackensack Meridian Health, seeks to translate current innovations in science to improve clinical outcomes for patients with cancer, infectious diseases and other life-threatening and disabling conditions. The CDI, housed in a fully renovated state-of-the-art facility, offers world-class researchers a support infrastructure and culture of discovery that promotes science innovation and rapid translation to the clinic.

For additional information, please visit www.hmh-cdi.org.