New S'pore kit could help in Mers outbreak

Researchers in Singapore have developed a kit that can detect and differentiate the common types of flu, and identify the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Mers-CoV).

They believe the kit would be useful if there is a Mers outbreak here because the symptoms of flu and Mers-CoV are very similar, though it is unlikely for a person to be infected with both at the same time.

Currently, a suspected Mers patient has to be isolated for a day or two and undergo repeat tests in order to exclude the virus.

This would not change even if the kit was used.

"But if you can make a diagnosis and say that a person has influenza, the chance of that person having Mers is far, far lower, and having that information can help you make decisions," said Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) senior consultant in laboratory medicine Timothy Barkham.

By combining the flu and Mers-CoV tests, the kit can also help reduce laboratories' workload and costs for patients, as well as ease some people's minds.

Dr Barkham said: "If you go back to the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) period, a lot of people came down with fever who actually had dengue, not Sars.

"When we told people that they had dengue, and therefore were unlikely to have Sars, that was an incredible psychological boost, to give people a solid diagnosis and an alternative to their worries."

The kit was developed by researchers from TTSH and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and Experimental Therapeutics Centre.

BII senior principal investigator Sebastian Maurer-Stroh said the researchers studied Mers-CoV strains and found genetic regions that were less likely to change even if the viruses mutated.

They then came up with a set of chemical re-agents, or primers, that detected the genetic regions.

The primers were added to an influenza test currently used at TTSH to create the combined flu and Mers-CoV kit.

Researchers made sure the Mers-CoV primers cannot be triggered by other organisms and coronaviruses, such as those that cause the common cold.

They also tested the kit on parts of the Mers-CoV strains in the laboratory. They have not tested it on clinical samples, partly because there have been no cases in Singapore so far.

"The absolute number of cases is very small so far and people don't like releasing samples of the virus and allowing them to go to other countries," added Dr Barkham.

As of July 10, 62 suspected Mers cases have been investigated in Singapore this year. All tested negative for the virus.

Mers has killed 36 people in South Korea since an outbreak began on May 20, but there have been no new cases there since early this month.

This article was first published on July 20, 2015.
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