The name of Focus Technologies Inc.'s chairman and chief technology officer, Laurence McCarthy, was misspelled in a March 10 Washington Business article. (Published 3/11/03)
Focus Technologies, a Herndon biotechnology company, said it would begin marketing components of the nation's leading test for the West Nile virus, making it the first company to commercialize the four-year-old technology.
The company plans to sell the testing materials to state public health departments, commercial laboratories and hospitals in time for the upcoming West Nile season under a license agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be announced this morning. The technology, first created and sold by the CDC, is designed to detect the antibodies present in the blood of infected patients.
Federal regulators have not approved a test for the mosquito-borne virus, but they do allow public health laboratories to create their own diagnostic kits, called "home brews." Many of these now include the chemical pieces that Focus is to begin manufacturing this month, among them a genetically modified version of West Nile and the virus's antibody, a protein specifically structured to attach to it.
The timing of the licensing agreement is fortunate for Focus, a privately held diagnostic testing company with $55 million in sales last year. It comes a year after the nation experienced its worst outbreak of West Nile fever since the 1999 discovery of the virus in this hemisphere. The virus infected 4,000 people and killed 274 in the United States last year, the CDC said.
The company performed 35,000 West Nile tests in 2002, a number it expects to rise substantially this year because of heightened awareness of the epidemic. Testing for the virus costs between $35 and $60 per patient, the company said. Focus said it is unclear how large the market for its products will be.
"We are anticipating another strong season of this disease and we want to make the technology CDC has used available to a much wider audience," Laurence McArthry, Focus chairman and chief technology officer, said.
Several U.S. companies are developing laboratory tests that hunt for the West Nile virus's genetic material. The trouble, scientists say, is that the genetic trail often disappears by the time infected patients show symptoms of an infection.
Other companies own rights to the CDC technology underpinning the antibody-based West Nile test kit, but Focus would be the first to commercialize it, said John T. Roehrig, chief of the arbovirus diseases branch of the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo.
Despite the advances in testing for West Nile, most cases are never discovered. About 80 percent of those who contract the virus develop no symptoms, McArthry said. The other 20 percent would develop what is known as West Nile fever, which is characterized by fever, headaches and occasionally a rash.