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Scientists developing faster test for swine flu

/ Source: The Associated Press

Hong Kong said Monday it has assigned a team of scientists to develop a test that will hopefully cut the time it takes to diagnose the new swine flu strain from a few days to a few hours.

Researchers in Hong Kong played a big role in discovering and determining how to treat SARS — a separate deadly virus that spread rapidly in 2003, killing more than 900 people. The island was the second hardest hit after mainland China.

Thomas Tsang, controller for Hong Kong's Center for Health Protection, said the government and the territory's universities are jointly developing the rapid swine flu test using genetic information on the virus from the World Health Organization. Such data is shared with designated flu laboratories worldwide.

"We will look at the information, including its genetic makeup, and we can produce a test correspondingly," Tsang said in Hong Kong.

Dr. Malik Peiris of Hong Kong University, one of the researchers and also the professor who discovered the SARS virus, said he expected the test to be ready within a week.

"It's fairly clear cut," Peiris said. "We have done this many times with many other viruses so I don't really see this being a major problem."

Tsang said the test will be based on a standard laboratory procedure called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which is already used to diagnose dozens of other infections. The process can find bits of genetic material that are unique to the virus, then reproduce them in large quantities for easy identification.

Scientists developing a quick test for the swine flu virus have an advantage over researchers trying to do the same with SARS when it was still a completely unknown virus, said Andrew Easton, head of biological sciences at the University of Warwick in England.

"We already know now that it's an influenza virus, so we already have information that we can use in considering new tests," said Easton, who is not involved with the project. "Developments over recent years in DNA technology mean that it's now possible to develop tests that are extremely rapid for the detection of a tremendous range of possible pathogens."

Fears of a possible swine flu pandemic have grown, prompting some countries to say they would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the illness. EU health officials have urged Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico.