Photonics help prepare for pandemic

Influenza A/H1N1 didn’t turn into the pandemic that many had feared, thank goodness. But by the time we realized that swine flu’s oink was worse than its bite, optics and photonics technologies had already sprung to battle on two fronts: A number of tests prepared to evaluate biological samples for presence of the virus. And because one of the symptoms is fever exceeding 100.4°F (38°C), thermal imagers–able to reveal temperature differences of less than 0.5°C–were deployed in travel terminals to quickly scan arriving passengers for elevated body temperature.

This is a mighty good thing, because, as Kathy Rowlen, CEO of InDevR (Boulder, CO), explains, “Many people are worried about what the virus will do this fall in North America.” InDevR’s LED and CMOS-based “FluChip” product, confirmed capable of detecting swine-origin H1N1 influenza A viruses and clearly distinguishing them from seasonal and avian viruses, claims less susceptibility to failure than quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assays as the virus continues to evolve.

But the startup has plenty of RT-PCR competition. On May 9, PrimerDesign (Southampton, England) announced that it had “won the race to produce the first DNA test kit for the Mexican swine flu.” PrimerDesign’s test works on all real-time PCR machines (including those by Applied Biosystems, Bio-Rad, Roche, and Qiagen), and produces results in two hoursówhereas current tests take two days. Such speed could be critical for containing outbreaks, the company notes.

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Roche Applied Science (Basel, Switzerland) later announced its own detection kit, which runs on Roche’s LightCycler RT-PCR systems. And Quest Diagnostics (Madison, NJ) said its Focus Diagnostics infectious-disease reference laboratory had introduced a laboratory-developed RT-PCR test, making it the first such service to be introduced by a commercial lab to identify patients infected with the novel H1N1. Focus prepared to perform the laboratory test at its lab in Cypress, CA, and to report results within 24 hours of specimen receipt.

On the other front–thermal screening–airport officials in Mexico had invested nearly a half million dollars by early May in portable thermal imagers (infrared cameras) from Fluke (Everett, WA), the company reported. Dominion, a system integrator and the Fluke representative for Mexico, worked with airport officials to provide training and consulting services to ensure successful screening. While Fluke developed its infrared scanners and thermal imagers for industrial use, the company quickly began promoting their use for health scanning, as evidenced by a downloadable brochure aiming to help people “understand the technology and how to use it to scan large groups.” Thermoteknix (Cambridge, England), Xenics (Leuven, Belgium), and Opgal (Karmiel, Israel) similarly promoted their products.

Even if Influenza A/H1N1 doesn’t return, the initial scare provided photonics developers with an opportunity to demonstrate how they can move quickly to effectively address a major health-care need.

Click here to enlarge image

Barbara Goode
Editor in Chief

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