Diagnostics overlooked as 'first line of defense' for Zika virus: WSJ

Mark Kessel

With Zika cases on the rise and the World Health Organization (WHO) recently declaring a public health emergency, government officials and the industry are looking for medications and vaccines to stop the virus' spread. But more attention should be paid to diagnostics as a tool to curb Zika outbreaks, one industry advocate said.

Even though tests are often "the first line of defense" for diseases such as Zika or Ebola, "they continue to be underfunded," Mark Kessel, chairman of the Geneva, Switzerland-based nonprofit organization Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), said in letter to The Wall Street Journal. "Without rapid diagnostics during an outbreak, the world health community lacks the ability to make a timely and accurate diagnosis," Kessel said.

As of now, there is no commercially available test for Zika virus. In the U.S., where there are fewer known cases of the virus than in Latin American or Caribbean countries, virus testing is performed at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab and a few state health departments, the agency said on its website.

The CDC is only recommending testing for pregnant women with virus symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. This could ignite pushback, because 80% of infected individuals never display symptoms and scientists still don't know whether an asymptomatic infection could infect a fetus, some health experts told The New York Times.

Part of the reason that the CDC does not recommend blood tests for asymptomatic women is because labs in the U.S. can not run that many tests right now, Dr. Denise Jamieson, one of the authors of the CDC's Zika-related guidelines for pregnant women, told the NYT. For example, labs would need to test every pregnant woman living in Puerto Rico, where cases have cropped up. And pregnant women in the U.S. who visited Latin America or the Caribbean in the past 9 months would need to undergo testing. But the CDC's recommendations are temporary and "as soon as we know more about the virus, they may evolve," Jamieson said.

Genekam's Zika test--Courtesy of Genekam

Meanwhile, scientists in Germany are working on a diagnostic test for Zika. German biotech company Genekam is developing a low-cost tool that can pinpoint the virus in blood samples, determining whether or not the person is a carrier. "Our test examines DNA and works with chemicals that react to the Zika virus only. Similar pathogens like Dengue fever won't show up in the results," Sudhir Bhartia, one of the test's co-developers, told German newspaper Deutsche Welle.

Still, there are some setbacks to Genekam's technology. The tests can only be operated by trained lab personnel, Bhartia said, and in labs with the right equipment.

Genekam recently sent its first delivery of testing kits to Brazil after authorities there gave the product a quick authorization. The tests could help address a growing problem, as the WHO said that it is expecting 3 million to 4 million cases of Zika virus worldwide.

- here's the WSJ op-ed (sub. req.)
- read the NYT story (sub. req.)
- get the Deutsche Welle article
- and here's more from the CDC