Femtomolar SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Detection Using the Microbubbling Digital Assay with Smartphone Readout Enables Antigen Burden Quantitation and Dynamics Tracking


Background Little is known about the dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 antigen burden in respiratory samples in different patient populations at different stages of infection. Current rapid antigen tests cannot quantitate and track antigen dynamics with high sensitivity and specificity in respiratory samples.Methods We developed and validated an ultra-sensitive SARS-CoV-2 antigen assay with smartphone readout using the Microbubbling Digital Assay previously developed by our group, which is a platform that enables highly sensitive detection and quantitation of protein biomarkers. A computer vision-based algorithm was developed for microbubble smartphone image recognition and quantitation. A machine learning-based classifier was developed to classify the smartphone images based on detected microbubbles. Using this assay, we tracked antigen dynamics in serial swab samples from COVID patients hospitalized in ICU and immunocompromised COVID patients.Results The limit of detection (LOD) of the Microbubbling SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Assay was 0.5 pg/mL (10.6 fM) recombinant nucleocapsid (N) antigen or 4000 copies/mL inactivated SARS-CoV-2 virus in nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs, comparable to many rRT-PCR methods. The assay had high analytical specificity towards SARS-CoV-2. Compared to EUA-approved rRT-PCR methods, the Microbubbling Antigen Assay demonstrated a positive percent agreement (PPA) of 97% (95% confidence interval (CI), 92-99%) in symptomatic individuals within 7 days of symptom onset and positive SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid results, and a negative percent agreement (NPA) of 97% (95% CI, 94-100%) in symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals with negative nucleic acid results. Antigen positivity rate in NP swabs gradually decreased as days-after-symptom-onset increased, despite persistent nucleic acid positivity of the same samples. The computer vision and machine learning-based automatic microbubble image classifier could accurately identify positives and negatives, based on microbubble counts and sizes. Total microbubble volume, a potential marker of antigen burden, correlated inversely with Ct values and days-after-symptom-onset. Antigen was detected for longer periods of time in immunocompromised patients with hematologic malignancies, compared to immunocompetent individuals. Simultaneous detectable antigens and nucleic acids may indicate the presence of replicating viruses in patients with persistent infections.Conclusions The Microbubbling SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Assay enables sensitive and specific detection of acute infections, and quantitation and tracking of antigen dynamics in different patient populations at various stages of infection. With smartphone compatibility and automated image processing, the assay is well-positioned to be adapted for point-of-care diagnosis and to explore the clinical implications of antigen dynamics in future studies.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.Funding StatementHC, ZL and PW have received support from National Institute of Health grants R01DA035868, R01EB029363 and National Science Foundation grant 1928334. SRW has received support from National Institute of Health grant R01AI40442 and Penn Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens. We thank the RADx-Tech Program, Penn Center for Precision Medicine, Penn Health-Tech and Penn Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry for providing funding for this project. This work was carried out in part at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, part of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure Program, which is supported by the National Science Foundation grant NNCI-2025608.Author DeclarationsI confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained.YesThe details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below:The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Pennsylvania.All necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived.YesI understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as ClinicalTrials.gov. I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance).YesI have followed all appropriate research reporting guidelines and uploaded the relevant EQUATOR Network research reporting checklist(s) and other pertinent material as supplementary files, if applicable.YesAll data referred to in the manuscript is available from the research team. The OpenCV-based Python code for the computer vision and machine learning pipeline is available at the following address: https://github.com/jianingq/microbuble-detection-and-classification.git.