Two UC San Francisco doctors are helping to develop a diagnostic test that they say can detect Ebola within 15 minutes instead of the current 24-hour turnaround time.
In the form of a dipstick, the Corgenix Ebola rapid test uses blood from a finger prick to determine whether a patient has been infected with the Ebola virus. The entire process is less than 20 minutes, whereas current testing of a possible Ebola patient can take as long as 24 hours.
The World Health Organization approved the test for use in Ebola- affected countries Feb. 19, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on Tuesday.
“It's a game-changer. This will be the first point-of-care novel Ebola diagnostic that will be available for clinical use in the outbreak,” said Dr. Dan Kelly, a UCSF clinician who helped with the test's final validation trial in Sierra Leone this month.
Kelly has traveled to Sierra Leone four times since the world's worst Ebola outbreak erupted last year. He has provided infection-control practices to health care workers, and treated Ebola patients when cases exploded in November as the hardest-hit areas shifted from Liberia to Sierra Leone.
As of Wednesday, more than 9,500 Ebola deaths and 23,600 cases have been recorded in West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prior to the final validation trial of the rapid test, researchers used samples of frozen blood to analyze the dipstick. The last step for the rapid test involved examining fresh blood, and Kelly's job was to take pictures of the dipsticks and data in the green zone, where personal protective equipment is not required.
Kelly, who returned from Sierra Leone on Monday but plans to go back next week, said the rapid test will likely be available for clinical use within a month. He is part of a team of half a dozen researchers that is based out of the Harvard Medical School and conducted the final validation trial.
“It really will change the way we approach screening and triage with patients, and not just at [Ebola treatment units], but throughout all clinics in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia as well as potentially schools and other facilities,” Kelly said.
Meanwhile, at a town hall meeting Thursday highlighting UCSF's Ebola response, health officials noted that while there has been a steep decline in the number of new Ebola infections, there is still much work to be done to eradicate the epidemic and ensure health systems are prepared for another possible outbreak.
“There is 10 years of repair work to be done in West Africa, on top of 10 years of civil war,” said Dr. George Rutherford, director of the Global Health Sciences Prevention and Public Health Group and co-chair of UCSF's task force on Ebola. “We're moving in the right direction in Ebola … [but] the work is far from done.”
Farrah Kashfipour, a critical-care nurse and UCSF global health fellow who took a leave from her fellowship last fall to respond to the Ebola crisis in Liberia, said the region will benefit from rapid testing, particularly in rural villages where she worked.
“Tests like that will be extremely valuable in months ahead,” Kashfipour said.
The epidemic, Kelly emphasized, is far from over.
“Sure, we are seeing a decline, but it's also a perception that the epidemic is over, and it's really not. It's not even close.
“It's going to be a bumpy road to zero.”