New tests will distinguish SARS from colds and flu
The Star - Saturday, 19 April 2003

BOSTON: Tests for the SARS virus will soon help doctors around the world sort out whether people with worrisome coughs and fevers actually have the new respiratory illness, relieving anxiety for many and helping judge who should be isolated to prevent more spread.

Government agencies, university labs and private companies are all rushing to develop highly sensitive tests that will seek out the newly discovered virus and confidently allow a diagnosis of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, once their accuracy has been proven.

Researchers say they are dazzled by the speed with which the virus secrets have been unlocked and shared, allowing far-flung scientists to try out each other's tests or create their own.

"What is remarkable is the way the information is coming out so fast," said microbiologist Frederick Nolte of Emory University in Atlanta. "Everything is in the public domain that is needed to put together a test for the virus."

Nolte, for instance, is using material developed by the Bernhard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, to help create a fast SARS test for use at his university hospital.

Meanwhile, the Hamburg institute is circulating its own test to a network of labs in 10 countries so scientists can judge how reliably it finds vanishingly small amounts of the virus, especially in people at the earliest stages of infection. The World Health Organisation cautioned on Thursday against relying too heavily on this test, since it may not be powerful enough to catch everyone with the virus.

All the tests are based on a standard laboratory procedure called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which is already used to diagnose dozens of other infections. The process can find bits of genetic material that are unique to the virus, then reproduce them in large quantities for easy identification, yielding an answer in a day or less.

Heiner Dreismann, president of Roche Molecular Systems, said his company hopes to have a PCR test for SARS finished within eight weeks. It has already set up a network of doctors in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The version created by the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention could be shipped quickly to US state labs, officials say. Several others are being fine tuned around the world using new information compiled just last weekend from scientists' marathon exercise of decoding the virus genes. - AP