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Roche races to produce Sars test

Reliable, large-scale tests could help curb the spread of Sars

(Keystone)

Scientists worldwide are racing to produce quick, cheap and easy tests for the deadly Sars virus.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Roche, announced earlier this week that it was hoping to launch a diagnostic test for the virus by the end of July.

Meanwhile, German biotech company, Artus, is already distributing a new high-speed test which it says can confirm the presence of the disease in two hours. Traditional tests for antibodies take more than ten days.

Researchers in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Vietnam have also taken up the challenge.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed the news saying the search for reliable, large-scale tests is important to help curb the spread of the disease.

Quarantine

Roche, the world's biggest diagnostics group, said on Monday it was trying to develop test kits and drugs to treat the flu-like illness.

"We are developing now a Sars-specific test. We believe this will be developed by the middle of June and will be on the market by the end of July," said spokesman Alexander Klauser.

The WHO has welcomed the prospect of standardized tests, which would make it possible to test many samples in a short space of time.

"They are absolutely essential in controlling these outbreaks," said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson.

"They are a way of identifying quickly who is infected and needs to be isolated from perhaps thousands of people who are not infected but who are in isolation or quarantine."

Tests can also give health authorities insight into when patients are most infectious and when is the best time to administer drugs, he said.

Large-scale tests

Sars has killed at least 326 people and infected more than 5,000 since it broke out in China's Guangdong province late last year before spreading to dozens of countries.

The search for reliable, large-scale tests that can quickly detect Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has been more difficult than first imagined

Klauser said the diagnostic test would be based on Roche's polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology. PCR acts as a kind of genetic copying machine that lets scientists detect even minute samples of genetic material.

Roche has been collecting Sars samples from hundreds of infected people across Asia in a bid to rush out a test kit for the disease.

It announced earlier this month that it was gathering stool and sputum samples from state-run hospitals in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Roche said it was too early to give any guidance about the market potential for the test. It is also examining whether it could develop a drug to treat the flu-like illness, but needed more information about the virus, Klauser said.

Quick and cheap

Thompson said tests for Sars already exist, but they are mostly made by hand, so only a few hundred can be conducted in a day. To perform tests on a large scale, they needed to be developed by the private sector, he added.

"What is important is that these are easily done, that they can be done without expensive equipment, and that they are cheap," he added.

He also noted that PCR tests can generally be used shortly after infection, unlike some antibody tests that may not work until 20 days down the line.

The tests detect the strain of the coronavirus which has been found in patients suffering from Sars and is now widely thought to cause the disease.

Further testing

Hamburg-based Artus says its test can detect the virus from throat swabs, sputum or faeces, and produces results in two hours.

Samples of the test will be shipped out for further evaluation by specialist laboratories around the world.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States expect to have a product ready soon, while Abbott Laboratories, another of the world's largest makers of diagnostic tests, is finalising an agreement with an undisclosed firm to distribute a test.

The Genome Institute of Singapore says it has a three-hour test in the final stages of completion, and the National Institute of Health and Epidemiology in Hanoi, Vietnam, has developed a six-hour test.

Researchers at Laval University hospital in Quebec City say they have a prototype ready to test for Sars.

Prodesse, a biotech company from Waukesha, Wisconsin, expects to have a test ready by mid to late May.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

Sars has killed at least 326 people and infected more than 5,000 worldwide.
It broke out in China's Guangdong province last November before spreading to dozens of countries.
The WHO said Vietnam had contained its outbreak - the first country to do so.

end of infobox

In brief

Scientists around the world are trying to develop quick, easy and reliable tests for Sars.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Roche, says it is hoping to launch a test by the end of July.

The World Health Organization has welcomed the news saying it is important to help curb the spread of the disease.

end of infobox


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