Public health officials may soon be able to screen patients for Ebola at border crossings and hospitals with a finger-prick blood test that takes mere minutes.
The development of the rapid diagnostic test, reported in The Lancet Thursday, represents a significant victory for scientists around the world who have been experimenting over the past year with all manner of vaccines, treatments and other ways of eradicating the virus.
Developing a way of confirming Ebola in a patient has been one of the top priorities. In the early stages the symptoms -- chest pain, cough, nausea -- can look like many other illnesses, making it very difficult for doctors to triage -- to determine who should be quarantined and who to send home. It can often take days or longer for laboratory tests, the current standard, to return a positive or negative result.
"Delays like this result not only in the failure to diagnose and treat Ebola-infected patients, but also in individuals without Ebola being admitted to holding units where they may be subsequently infected with the virus," explained Nira Pollock, an associate medical director of the infectious diseases diagnostic laboratory at Boston Children's Hospital who is a co-author of the study.
The new test was evaluated in two government-run treatment centers in Sierra Leone, one of the hardest hit countries in the epidemic that has killed more than 11,200 people in West Africa as of this week. The research team, which also included scientists from Harvard Medical School, compared the accuracy of the rapid test with the laboratory test in 106 individuals suspected of having Ebola. The rapid test identified 100 percent of all infected patients who also got positive results with the lab test.
Surprisingly, the rapid test also detected some cases that the lab test did not pick up. The authors cautioned that more research needs to be done on patients with low levels of virus in their blood in both tests.
A number of other scientific endeavors that aim to fight Ebola are also well under way. Scientists have started a small trial of a Japanese antiviral drug in Guinea’s forest region and are testing whether the blood plasma of survivors can save lives. Vaccines are being tested in the National Institutes of Health clinical center as well as in affected countries like Liberia.