Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have developed a 4 1/2-hour test for genital herpes, not 4 1/2 minutes, as reported yesterday.

Government scientists have developed the first quick test, 4 1/2 minutes, for genital herpes.

The current test for herpes takes a week, and there are cases where the new one could be life-saving, Dr. John Sever of the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, said this week.

Though the disease is rampant, it is often hard to diagnose, he said. If a pregnant woman is about to deliver, doctors may need an immediate diagnosis so they can do a cesarian section to try to protect her baby from infection.

"Fifty percent of newborn babies get herpes if delivered through the infected area, and over half of these babies die," Sever said. "It's a case where the doctor can't wait 24 hours for an answer."

If a baby is born with the infection, he added, "It's very important to know it and start drug treatment immediately. Any delay drastically reduces effectiveness."

Patients generally also want a quick answer, he said. When there is a week's delay, some just disappear and never get treatment.

The disease is not curable. But the drug acyclovir will speed healing and shorten the period of contagion in first outbreaks.

The test was developed by Sever and Drs. Lata Nerurkar and Mami Namba.