updated 2/3/2006 3:11:49 PM ET 2006-02-03T20:11:49

A laboratory test that can give a preliminary diagnosis of bird flu in humans received expedited approval Friday, federal regulators said.

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The new test can provide results on suspected H5 influenza samples within four hours. That process used to take two to three days.

If the test is positive for the H5 strain, further testing would still be needed to identify the specific subtype of the virus, including the H5N1 strain responsible for the deaths of more than 160 people since 2003.

The FDA approved the test, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Preparing for a possible flu pandemic is a top priority for our nation and FDA acted quickly to evaluate and expedite CDC’s request for approval of this test,” acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said in a statement.

Health officials fear the H5N1 strain will evolve into a virus that can be passed from human to human and lead to an influenza pandemic. The ability to quickly test patients suspected of harboring the virus could help track and curtail such a health crisis.

The new test will be distributed to laboratories in all 50 states beginning next week, the CDC said. The agency plans to share the technology with health officials around the world.

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