Zika: Developing test kits and vaccine

Made-in-Singapore kit can test for 3 viruses, including Zika, in 2 hours

The test kit, which is now ready for use, costs only a few dollars to produce.
The test kit, which is now ready for use, costs only a few dollars to produce.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
A*Star Experimental Therapeutics Centre's senior research scientist Masafumi Inoue (left) and research associates Gerald Yong and Karen Lee were part of the team behind the kit that can test for dengue, chikungunya and Zika at the same time.
A*Star Experimental Therapeutics Centre's senior research scientist Masafumi Inoue (left) and research associates Gerald Yong and Karen Lee were part of the team behind the kit that can test for dengue, chikungunya and Zika at the same time.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Costing a few dollars to produce, it has drawn keen global interest

Scientists in Singapore have developed a kit that can test for the dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses all at the same time in a matter of two hours.

Now ready for use, the kit costs only a few dollars to produce and has attracted interest from other countries and even the World Health Organisation (WHO), said Dr Masafumi Inoue, a senior research scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Experimental Therapeutics Centre who is part of the team that developed the kit.

The made-in-Singapore kit is among others that the WHO is interested in testing, he said.

He added that he is currently compiling clinical data for the health authority before sending the kit over for testing. If successful, it could be used by the WHO to test for the viruses.

The three mosquito-borne viruses here cause similar symptoms such as rashes and joint pain. Symptoms for the Zika virus are generally mild and go away within a week.

"It is important to quickly distinguish between the three major (and prevalent) mosquito-borne viruses here... This will not only lessen the mental stress on the patient and give the patient peace of mind, but also ensure that he or she can receive the appropriate sort of treatment and care without delay," said Dr Inoue.

 

All that is required from the patient is a blood or urine sample. The genetic material of the virus is then extracted to find out what the virus is.

The detection process takes two hours, reducing the time by threefold if each of the viruses were to be tested for individually.

Dr Wong Sin Yew, an infectious diseases physician at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said early diagnosis will help in public health control efforts.

"In the case of mosquito-borne infections, it will allow the NEA (National Environment Agency) to focus on intensive vector control measures in new areas and intensify measures in large outbreak areas," added Dr Wong.

While a similar kit has been developed by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not readily available here, said Dr Inoue.

The idea to develop the kit came about six months ago when Brazil had been hit badly by the surge in Zika cases. That was when Dr Inoue and Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, senior principal investigator at A*Star's Bioinformatics Institute, decided to work with Tan Tock Seng Hospital on this project.

"We anticipated that it was a matter of time before the Zika virus would affect Singapore," said Dr Inoue.

Moving forward, Dr Inoue and his team hope to expand the scope of the kit to include other viruses that, together with Zika, could cause microcephaly - a condition where children are born with abnormally small heads.

An article published by the Nature journal last month cited studies showing it might not be Zika alone that causes the condition. Apart from socio-economic reasons, other factors might be at play.

For instance, a recent paper by Brazilian scientists found a correlation between low vaccination rates for yellow fever and the microcephaly clusters in Brazil.

An overwhelming majority of confirmed cases of microcephaly or birth defects of the central nervous system reported in Brazil since last November were in the north-eastern part of the country.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Made-in-S'pore kit can test for three viruses in two hours'. Print Edition | Subscribe