New test for quick identification of H1N1 rolled out – as vaccine six months away

May 1, 2009

(ChattahBox) — As scientists are racing to prepare a vaccine against the never-before-seen flu strain H1N1, a new test to detect the virus is being distributed. New tests are being shipped to U.S. states that should speed up efforts to screen for the new flu virus that threatens to start a pandemic, health officials said on Thursday.

The new strain, a strange mix of two swine flu strains with a smattering of genetic material from avian and human flu virus, may have killed up to 176 people in Mexico and a toddler in Texas. The flu virus causing the current outbreak, now called “swine flu” will now be known as influenza A(H1N1).  So far The World Health Organization said that 11 countries have confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus.

The symptoms H1N1 virus causes are virtually identical to regular seasonal flu, as well as a host of other respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more exotic coronaviruses. A quick on-the-spot test can tell doctors if a patient has influenza and some will tell whether it is type A. But more sophisticated tests must be done to show whether it is an H1N1, the type that includes both one of the seasonal influenza strains and the new swine flu strain.

Now a new test, which requires a process called PCR, which amplifies and analyzes the genetic material of the virus, and will produce a result in a matter of hours” according to experts. But it is not something a doctor or clinic can do. There is a limited amount of material, called reagent, that can be used to make the PCR tests work, so the CDC recommends only that people with flulike symptoms who have some kind of recent travel to Mexico or who have been in close contact with a known swine flu patient should get the test.

A lab with the new test has been set up in Mexico in the hope of finding out how many of the 2,500 suspected cases are in fact the new strain of H1N1 swine flu. Before, Mexico had to send samples to the CDC in Atlanta or a World Health Organization lab in Winnipeg, Canada, meaning a lag of several days.

Meanwhile it will take several months before the first pilot lots begin required human testing to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective. The CDC says a swine flu vaccine will take at least six months to make in large quantities, if all goes well. To make any vaccine, scientists first have to develop a “seed” strain of the virus that grows well in hens’ eggs. That process takes about three weeks, the CDC estimates. Once the seed virus is successfully created and sent to manufacturers, it will take them eight to 11 weeks to create small batches of flu vaccine for safety testing. If the vaccine proves safe, mass production begins. Until a vaccine is ready, the government has stockpiled anti-viral medications that can ease flu symptoms or help prevent infection. The medicines are proving effective.


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