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Texas hospitals develop rapid Zika test

Dallas County Mosquito Lab microbiologist Spencer Lockwood sorts mosquitos collected in a trap, left, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Hutchins, Texas, that had been set up in Dallas County near the location of a confirmed Zika virus infection.
LM Otero | AP
Dallas County Mosquito Lab microbiologist Spencer Lockwood sorts mosquitos collected in a trap, left, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Hutchins, Texas, that had been set up in Dallas County near the location of a confirmed Zika virus infection.

Two Texas hospitals — Texas Children's Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital — have developed a rapid test for the Zika virus, a milestone in responding to the outbreak.

Testing for Zika virus today is cumbersome. There are no commercial tests that make testing for Zika as simply as diagnosing HIV, for example. Doctors today must send blood samples to sophisticated labs available in only a handful of states or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The tests, which can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine or spinal fluid, will provide results in just a few hours.

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They will be performed for hospital patients only, however, and won't be available to people across the country, said James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children's, who helped lead the test development team. "We want to avoid being faced with overwhelming demand from other hospitals," Versalovic said.

The new test can detect genetic material specific to the Zika virus.

At least 82 American travelers have been diagnosed with Zika after visiting areas with outbreaks and returning to the USA, according to the CDC. Health officials expects hundreds more to develop the virus because of travel, especially as Americans visit Brazil for the Olympic games this summer. The mosquito that spreads the Zika virus, the Aedes aegypti, lives along in the South, mostly on the coast. Many public health officials fear that the Gulf Coast could be vulnerable to Zika, due both to its climate and pockets of poverty.

All of that could put pressure on public health labs, which could struggle to keep up with the demand for Zika tests, Versalovic said.

"We must be prepared for a surge of Zika testing demand," Versalovic said. "We must provide answers for anxious moms-to-be and families."

Doctors will initially offer the test to people who meet specific criteria, such as recent travel to a place with a Zika outbreak and Zika-like symptoms, which include a rash, join pain or fever. Pregnant women who've traveled to a place with a Zika outbreak also will be offered the test, regardless of whether they have symptoms, according to Texas Children's Hospital. Four out of five people with Zika infections have no symptoms.

The World Health Organization and CDC have advised pregnant women to consult their doctors before traveling to places with Zika virus outbreaks and consider delaying travel.

Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, called the Texas hospitals' test an important milestone. This kind of tests was used during the early days of the H1N1 influenza outbreak, before a commercial test was available, he said.

An "off-the-shelf" test "takes longer and has to pass through rigorous FDA regulatory evaluations," Adalja said. Hospital-made tests "are not something that every hospital has the capability of developing."

The collaboration between Texas Children's and Houston Methodist Hospital was made possible through a gift from Virginia and L.E. Simmons, who created a virus detection and surveillance program after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which highlighted the need for more focus on infectious diseases.