The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed approximately a thousand people as of early August. The World Health Organization describes it as the worst outbreak of the dreaded disease and has declared a global public health emergency.
Since a vaccine won’t be ready until late 2015, experimental therapies like Mapp Pharmaceuticals’ ZMapp and Tekmira’s drug candidate have been used in some patients.
But for the majority of those at risk of getting the Ebola virus, early screening remains key in containing the spread of the disease.
This has proved more difficult in this age of frequent international travel. Public health officials are using thermal scanners in airports and put medical personnel on standby to check passengers who are having symptoms.
For those patients, the standard blood tests administered are enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
However, these tests are time-consuming, only performed by highly trained personnel and can only be done by a few major, sophisticated labs.
By the time the results arrive, those who have contracted the virus may have slipped through the cracks, traveled elsewhere and have inadvertently spread the disease.
Now, a handheld device funded by the Department of Homeland Security and developed by California-based biological detection and diagnostics company PositiveID may offer the best alternative for a quicker and cheaper diagnostic test for Ebola.
Using this device can be the difference between life and death for many people at risk, because it allows for early intervention at the point-of-need.
“The best way to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus throughout the world is to detect it as early and quickly as possible, at the source, and we believe our Firefly system will give us that ability,”
William J. Caragol, Chairman and CEO of PositiveID, said in a statement.
“We are very proud of the development, design and intellectual property protection achieved to date for our Firefly system, designed to deliver rapid molecular diagnostic testing faster, cheaper and exactly where it's needed.”
The Firefly Dx handheld device is the size of a mini laptop. At the center of the device is a cartridge with a hole through which a small blood sample is collected. The user pushes a single button to start the test, and the device gives a result within 15 minutes.
As the handheld device is portable and easy to use, anyone with little training can use it in airports and other sites where a lab is not readily available.
The device costs $3,000 to $5,000 and the test costs $25, according to Probst.
However, what they have now is just a prototype, and he says it would probably take roughly two years before the point-of-need devices can be used routinely in airports
“If you can test early on in remote locations, you can essentially quarantine that area sooner, therefore reducing the spread of [the disease],”
Lyle Probst, president of PositiveID, said in an interview with KTVU in San Francisco.
“Even now as people go through, some airports are scanning to see who’s running a temperature and who’s not and if they’re running a temperature they can go and take a sample from them, but they’re not going to get results for several hours.”
Meanwhile, Colorado-based Corgenix is also developing a similar rapid-test kit for Ebola with the help of a $3 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The home test kits would be available within three years.
These devices are among a handful of diagnostic tools being developed to quell the scourge of infectious diseases, especially those coming from developing countries.
For instance, a project by Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is also developing an mHealth solution in the form of a cheap, portable device that works with a cellphone for detecting malaria.
As an aid to surveillance, healthcare groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres are using online maps and geographic information systems to track the disease.