Speed. That's key to ending the Ebola epidemic, health officials have been saying for months. Now there's a new tool to help do the trick.
The World Health Organization approved the first quick test for Ebola Friday. The test gives results in about 15 minutes, instead of hours. So people infected can get treatment and be quarantined more quickly.
"It's definitely a breakthrough," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said Friday in Geneva.
The standard test used now requires a special laboratory. Getting samples to and from those labs is a huge challenge. During the epidemic, samples were often transported on canoes and motorbikes or carried by hand for miles through the jungle.
The new test, called ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test, requires much less equipment. It's simply a piece of paper and a test tube. And it doesn't need electricity.
"It's very similar to a pregnancy test," says Doug Simpson of Corgenix Medical Corporation, in Boulder, Colo., which designed and produced the test. "A drop of blood is placed on the paper, and if two lines appear, then it's positive for Ebola."
But there are many limitations to the test, says immunologist Erwan Piriou of Doctors Without Borders.
"We're still discussing whether we'll use it or not," he says, "But right now, we don't see an easy way to use this kind of test. We're a bit surprised that it came out so early."
For starters, the rapid test still involves blood. So, like the standard test, it needs to be run inside a biosafety cabinet — a box or tent that protects workers from exposure to the virus. That means the test isn't as portable as it appears, Piriou says. And without the cabinet, he says, it wouldn't be safe to use it in a remote village.
The bigger concern is the test's high false-positive rate. About 15 percent of people who aren't infected with Ebola will test positive.
"This is quite far away from the characteristic were were hoping to have," Piriou says. "We would really like a test that could rule out cases."
The rapid test also catches only about 92 percent of Ebola cases. So a fair number of people infected would go undetected.
For these reasons, health workers would still need to run the standard Ebola test to confirm the Corgenix test.
The quick test isn't yet available in West Africa. Corgenix plans to make the first shipment in about two weeks. Final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is required before sending the product out of the U.S.
The price of the test is still not known. But it will cost orders of magnitude less than the current standard Ebola test, Corogenix's Simpson says.
The World Health Organization is evaluating a few other rapid Ebola tests but doesn't know yet when those would be approved.