Researchers in Houston have announced that they have developed the first hospital-based, rapid diagnostic test for Zika, an advance that they said should help public health officials identify if – or, more likely, when – infected mosquitoes reach the United States this summer.
Using a sample of a patient’s blood, urine, spinal fluid or amniotic fluid for pregnant women, the test can identify whether the DNA of the virus is present in as quickly as one day. Previously, physicians have had to ship blood or other samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wait for a response.
“Until now it’s been a complicated, fairly lengthy process to get a diagnosis. You would have to go to your physician, fill out a bunch of forms, get a specimen and then send it out. It could take 10 days or even two weeks,” James Musser, director of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital and who was part of the team working on the diagnostic, said in an interview.
While a number of hospitals around the world are able to test for the presence of a certain families of tropical viruses, this is the first quick test that appears to be able to distinguish between Zika and dengue fever.
Musser said that the new diagnostic technique, developed through a joint effort by his hospital and Texas Children’s, was validated for accuracy and sensitivity in house and has yet to be reviewed by a third party. While it certainly promises to be a useful tool in the Zika fight, it is not the diagnostic panacea that many public health officials have been hoping for. It requires some expensive, specialized equipment that is typically only found in major hospital centers – making it impossible to be used in some of the rural areas of Latin America where the virus is spreading.
A number of other scientific teams from university labs to major diagnostic companies are working on more portable, inexpensive tests that can be more easily used in the field.
Musser said that the hospitals started using the test this week on women who are pregnant, have symptoms of Zika and have been traveling in countries where the virus is actively spreading. He said the institutions’ goal is to make the test more widely available to other types of patients and to neighboring hospitals and that researchers will share information about the test with anyone interested in setting up a similar testing effort.
The Zika project was funded through a philanthropic grant from L.E. and Virginia Simmons, a local couple, and is part of a larger effort at Houston Methodist to bolster hospital-based rapid response systems for infectious diseases. Musser said the Ebola crisis in Dallas and the spread of other tropical disease, such as chikungunya, that have moved up from the southern hemisphere in recent years underscored the fact that Texas is on the front lines of this fight.