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High quality of SARS-CoV-2 molecular diagnostics in a diverse laboratory landscape

A two-step strategy combining assisted benchmark testing (entry controls) and External Quality Assessments (EQAs) with blinded simulated clinical specimens to enhance and maintain the quality of nucleic acid amplification testing was developed.

This strategy was successfully applied to 71 diagnostic laboratories in The Netherlands when upscaling the national diagnostic capacity during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The availability of benchmark testing in combination with advice for improvement substantially enhanced the quality of the laboratory testing procedures for SARS-CoV-2 detection.

The three subsequent EQA rounds demonstrated high quality testing with regard to specificity (99.6% correctly identified) and sensitivity (93.3% correctly identified). Even with the implementation of novel assays, changing workflows using diverse equipment and a high degree of assay heterogeneity, the overall high quality was maintained using this two-step strategy.

The study shows that in contrast to the limited value of Cq value for absolute proxies of viral load, these Cq values can, in combination with metadata on strategies and techniques, provide valuable information for laboratories to improve their procedures. In conclusion, our two-step strategy (preparation phase followed by a series of EQAs) is a rapid and flexible system capable of scaling, improving, and maintaining high quality diagnostics even in a rapidly evolving (e.g. pandemic) situation.

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