A new test for the Zika virus can greatly improve how rapidly one can find out if he or she is infected, according to Harvard researchers who developed it.
It involves just paper, a simple material that can make the test convenient, easy and portable.
According to CBC, whose reporter David Common visited the laboratory where the test was created, "in less than an hour, anxious expectant mothers can find out if they’re carrying the disease, which can lead to microcephaly."
Microcephaly is a condition marked by small, underdeveloped heads and brains in babies.
"We’re going to drop what we’re working on and see what we can do in a matter of few weeks – in particular to see if we can come up with a rapid, inexpensive diagnostic for Zika," said Harvard scientist James Collins, who added that the test could be as cheap as two cents up to less than $2 each.
Here’s how it works: the researchers take live samples of the virus and infect live cells in the lab. They then take a section of that infected cell, add it to a small piece of paper, and freeze-dry it. The test can then be kept safely at room temperature.
Once rehydrated, the cell awakens. The tester can afterwards drop an amplified sample of someone’s urine, saliva or blood. In less than 3 minutes, according to CBC, a positive sample will turn purple.
Accuracy is another promoted benefit: traditional testing depends on examining the virus’ antibodies, which is quite problematic given that the Zika and dengue viruses are almost identical. The new test spots the difference by looking at RNA sequences, and even identifies the specific strain.
The test is also hoped to be useful for Ebola virus, leprosy, and even antibiotic resistance as well as a frontline test for cancer.
The paper-based diagnostic test, which was first introduced last month, was developed with assistance from the University of Toronto and is expected to be available in the field soon.
Last April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials confirmed the definite link between Zika virus and microcephaly. This marked the first time a mosquito-borne virus has been directly implicated in congenital brain defects.
"[This affirms] our early guidance to pregnant women and their partners to take steps to avoid Zika infection and to health care professionals who are talking to patients every day," said CDC director Thomas Frieden, who joins other health experts in pinning hopes not just on increased awareness, but also timely diagnosis of the condition.