The UK government has announced that the novel coronavirus ‘constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health’.
Dr Al Edwards, School of Pharmacy, University of Reading, said:
“The government is absolutely right that coronavirus is a serious and imminent threat to people in the UK.
“The main challenges facing Britain and the wider world are containment, finding everyone infected and stopping the spread, and the treatment of very ill patients, which could easily overwhelm hospitals in any country, however well-developed the health system.
“Finding people who have been infected is extremely challenging, but it is essential for containment. We are lucky we do have fairly rapid tests available, based on detecting the virus in patient blood samples, for example. However, these will only work when patient is quite sick. After people get better, or if they have mild infection, the virus can’t be detected.
“The current rapid tests are based on detecting the nucleic acid of the virus by measuring RNA. This is the genetic ‘code’ of the virus. When the level of the virus drops in, a patient doesn’t have very much viral RNA. This is good for the patient but makes the virus almost undetectable.
“There is another way to detect the virus: find antibodies in the blood. After the patient recovers, they will have lots of antibodies that bind to the virus. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to measure anti-virus antibodies than to detect virus nucleic acids. This type of test will be developed very quickly. I would be very surprised if no-one has developed this type of test yet for urgent research. But as yet there is no internationally agreed ‘approved’ test and agreeing one that works may take some time.“At the University of Reading we are trying to develop faster, smartphone-based rapid tests to detect antibodies against viral infection, including in outbreaks such as this one. We have a prototype device tested to try and detect MERS coronavirus infection, but it’s still experimental. We are currently working on proposals to adopt this as fast as possible for use with the current coronavirus outbreak, 2019-nCoV, and SARS.”
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