A fast, reliable and affordable Ebola diagnostic test is in critical demand in West Africa. The WHO estimates that there are over 21,000 cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea but, of those, only 13,376 have been confirmed through official laboratory tests. The longer suspected cases go untested, the harder it becomes to contain the spread of the virus and expedite patient treatment.
Thanks to a recent £620,000 research grant made out to the EbolaCheck project, led by the University of Westminster in the UK, a viable solution may be on its way. The EbolaCheck project seeks to develop a cost-effective, portable device that can diagnose the virus within 40 minutes using a small sample of blood, and eventually urine or saliva.
The project is being led by Dr. Sterghios A. Moschos, director of the university’s Genomic Services Unit, in collaboration with renowned Ebola expert and senior lecturer in medical microbiology, Dr. Edward Wright. It is one of seven projects currently being funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Wellcome Trust, and managed by Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) as part of a £1.34 million program seeking an improved understanding of and response to the Ebola outbreak.
Faster, Cheaper, Safer
Current Ebola diagnostic tests present a number of major logistical challenges. The current reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR test, produces highly accurate results but requires a high degree of staff training and laboratory biosafety. Each test costs approximately $100, requires a full tube of blood and can take up to six hours to complete. This high cost and time lost to testing is a luxury that West Africa cannot afford given the scale and severity of the current epidemic. Delays in diagnosis mean that infected persons often remain in the community and risk exposing others. Standard tests that require the use of needles and syringes also unnecessarily put frontline health care workers at risk of exposure.
If researchers are successful, the EbolaCheck device could deliver reliable results over eight times faster than standard tests. Additionally, it will provide a much simpler and safer testing alternative by eventually only requiring a sample of urine or saliva, instead of blood. Developers are working to secure the technology, which will operate similar to a blood glucose metre, from a UK biotech company in Cambridge on humanitarian grounds. It is expected that early prototypes of the tool will be ready for sample patient testing by May 2015.
The positive implications of a device of this kind could be far-reaching for the development community. According to a recent WHO report, “apart from expediting the immediate outbreak response, rapid diagnostic tests will have enduring value in countries where many other endemic diseases mimic the early symptoms of Ebola. Having such tests in hand will also leave health services better prepared for a possible recurrence of Ebola in West Africa and elsewhere.”
To read about the other Ebola research projects currently underway, visit our Seven Innovative Projects to Tackle Ebola Series.
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