Bird flu test better, faster and stronger

Conrad Wilson

Identifying flu viruses is now quick and inexpensive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which announced the development of a new test Nov. 14.

The test, called the MChip, provides information based on gene segments that mutate less often than the flu genes used in current tests, according to the National Institute of Health.

When diagnosing H5N1, a strain of avian influenza, the MChip was 95 percent accurate and never produced a false positive, said Kathy Rowlen, the developer of the MChip and scientist at the University of Colorado.

“If a patient came to a doctor’s office and (the doctor) told them they had H5N1, that would be very bad,” she said.

The anthrax scare was the result of many false positives, she said.

Rowlen said the MChip not only confirms or denies a viral strain, but also diagnoses the type of influenza.

A presumptive test informs health professionals if a patient has H5N1, but doesn’t specify the strain of the virus, Rowlen said.

MChip tells health professionals what strain of influenza a patient has, she said. This way, if other strains of avian influenza – besides H5N1 -started to appear in humans, they would be detected.

“It’s basically better, stronger, faster,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said the MChip could help in diagnosing avian influenza.

“Concerns about a possible influenza pandemic make it imperative that we continue to devise reliable and easy-to-use diagnostic tests for

H5N1 that can be employed on-site where outbreaks are suspected,” Fauci said in a statement.

For the last few years, the World Health Organization and the CDC noted in reports the need for a rapid and inexpensive field test in diagnosing H5N1.

“The technology for diagnosing human H5N1 infectious is mature, but many tests are complex, some are liable to error and some can be performed safely only in biosafety level 3 facilities,” said a recent WHO report.

“A simple, rapid, robust and reliable test, suitable for use in the field or at the patient’s bedside, is urgently needed,” the report said.

The materials for MChip cost less than $10, Rowlen said. Another test, FluChip, is slightly more expensive, but not as effective, Rowlen said. Other tests cost upwards of $500 or $600.

“You can’t do a flu test in a doctor’s office in Cambodia for $500,” Rowlen said. MChip “holds a lot of promise.”

If the University needed to diagnose forms of influenza, this test would be helpful, said David Golden, director of public health for Boynton Health Services.

The test “would be helpful if we were looking for H5N1 in our location,” he said.

Currently, Boynton does not test for different strains of influenza but sends samples to the state health department for further testing, Golden said.

“It would be helpful for an outbreak of H5N1,” he said, “but the treatment wouldn’t change a lot.”

Although the test is still in the research phase, the University of Colorado is currently negotiating the rights.

Currently, the H5N1 strain has resulted in 258 cases and 153 deaths, according to the WHO.