FAU researchers develop 15-minute test for Zika

Brazil Zika War on Mosquito

During last year’s Zika scare, Palm Beach County OB-GYNs griped that pregnant women waited as long as four weeks to get test results from state labs.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University say they have a solution. FAU scientists are working on a quick-and-inexpensive test that would produce results in just 15 minutes and cost $5 or less.

FAU said Wednesday that its researchers landed a $199,280, one-year grant from the Florida Department of Health to perfect their test, which uses saliva or urine rather than blood and looks for Zika antibodies rather than a viral genome.

Waseem Asghar, assistant professor at FAU’s Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is lead investigator for the project. He envisions the test being used in doctors’ offices and at airports.

“We should know whether someone has Zika,” Asghar said. “That’s very important.”

While there’s no cure for Zika, an infected person can cut the risk of transmission by engaging only in safe sex. And public health officials closely monitor case counts to determine whether to spray for mosquitoes or post travel warnings.

Asghar expects the test to be ready for market for the 2018 mosquito season. For now, he said, the focus is on public health rather than profits, although Asghar said he might launch a startup to commercialize the Zika test.

“We have not really thought much about the business, or how we would take it to market,” Asghar said.

Today, Zika testing is conducted by using a polymerase chain reaction machine to look at blood samples. The bulky equipment must be operated by a skilled technician.

Once an obscure virus, Zika morphed into a health scare last year after an outbreak of brain-damaged babies in Latin America. For most people, the mosquito-borne Zika virus poses little threat. Only 20 percent of those infected show symptoms, and the ailments tend to be mild and fleeting. But Zika can infect unborn babies and cause severe brain damage.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, an urban pest whose numbers soar during the rainy months and fall during the dry season.

Public health officials warn that Zika could return next summer.

“People are expecting that the virus will come again,” Asghar said. “Our goal would be to prepare for that.”



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