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Scientists race to develop rapid testing for two of the world’s deadliest pathogens

Field lab assistants catch a bat in their net as they collect specimens for their Nipah virus research in the Shuvarampur area of Faridpur, Bangladesh
Field lab assistants catch a bat as they collect specimens for their Nipah virus research - Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS

Scientists are racing to develop rapid testing devices for Nipah and Lassa virus – two deadly pathogens with the potential to spark global outbreaks.

A team of scientists have embarked on a four-year project, led by FIND, a disease diagnosis non-profit, to identify the best tests which can be quickly used on the spot to determine whether someone is infected with the viruses.

When Covid struck, rapid testing became the backbone of the UK’s response. The government bought hundreds of millions of lateral flow tests, which returned a result in minutes and helped identify people most at risk of transmitting the virus.

It’s hoped similar devices will one day be widely used to prevent future Nipah and Lassa outbreaks from escalating into epidemics.

“Access to quality, rapid diagnostic testing is the cornerstone of global health security,” said Dr Cassandra Kelly-Cirino, vice-president of FIND’s health programmes.

“Lack of testing to identify frequent outbreaks of both Nipah and Lassa puts individuals at risk of these deadly diseases as well as posing a threat to whole populations.”

Field lab assistants collect a saliva specimen from a bat at a field laboratory as they research the Nipah virus in the Shuvarampur area of Faridpur, Bangladesh
Nipah is a zoonotic disease carried by fruit bats that attacks the brain and has a fatality rate as high as 70 per cent - Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS

Nipah is a zoonotic disease that attacks the brain and has a fatality rate as high as 70 per cent. It is carried by fruit bats, also known as ‘flying foxes’, and can be spread from person to person.

Outbreaks of Nipah virus have historically been confined to South and Southeast Asia, but fruit bats today span a large geographical area covering more than two billion people, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare that it has “serious epidemic potential”.

Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic illness, similar to Ebola. People become infected through exposure to food or other items that have been contaminated by rats, which carry the virus. It can also spread from person to person through body fluids.

There are up to 300,000 cases of the disease a year in West Africa, with approximately 5,000 deaths. But around 80 per cent of infections are asymptomatic and experts are unclear how widespread the disease is.

There is no effective treatment or vaccine against Nipah and Lassa, but several jabs are in development.

Although diagnostic tests exist for the two viruses, they are not readily available for the sort of mass testing seen during the Covid pandemic.

The FIND project, which has received $14.9 million in funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), will examine and evaluate current tests.

The scientists will advance the best performing devices for further testing and approval. Successful diagnostics will be progressed to licensure for widespread use.

“High quality and rapid diagnostic tests for Nipah and Lassa are badly needed to be able to help patients as soon as they seek healthcare in the community, and to help public health workers respond to outbreaks,” said In-Kyu Yoon, Cepi’s executive director for research and development.

“Fast disease detection means health workers can begin targeted treatment quickly and make referral to the next level of health care for better investigation and management if needed.

“The rapid tests can also be used for public health interventions such as patient isolation and contact tracing.”

Early pathogen detection is critical to the 100 Days Mission – Cepi’s $3.5 billion five-year plan to dramatically reduce or eliminate the future risk of pandemics and epidemics. It is also backed by the G7 and G20.

The plan aims to develop rapid pathogen tests and roughly 100 prototype vaccines for the 25 viral families currently known to infect humans.

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