Chinese doctors are diagnosing the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) by taking a throat or nasal swab from any person showing symptoms, such as a fever. The swabs are transported in batches to laboratories run by the local centers for disease control, where they are put through machines that use a form of DNA analysis called polymerase chain reaction to detect the virus.
In the outbreak’s epicenter, Wuhan, and the surrounding province of Hubei, it takes hours for samples to be sent to the laboratories and days for the results to be issued. The labs are running 6000 tests a day, but even with staff working around the clock, they are struggling to keep up with the workload. The province is now seeking outside help, reports The New York Times.
In addition, Hubei is running short of testing kits and reagents. Currently, seven manufacturers have government approval to make test kits for the coronavirus and they have been working overtime to deliver them. More newly developed testing kits are in the pipeline, but it is unclear when they will be ready for use.
A proposal has now been made that doctors first use CT scans to detect pneumonia and quickly isolate and treat patients who have it. Experts say that people infected with the coronavirus would likely have lesions in both lungs. The advantage is that CT scans are convenient and can produce immediate results.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay Yan, an infectious disease specialist in Hong Kong, warned that the main disadvantage of using CT scans would be missing patients with mild symptoms, raising the risk of spreading the infection.
In a study published by the journal Radiology, researchers found that out of 21 patients with the coronavirus in China last month, three initially had normal chest CT scans. “We can’t rely on CT alone to fully exclude presence of the virus”, said the study’s lead author, Michael Chung, Assistant Professor in the Department of Diagnostic, Interventional and Molecular Radiology at Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
Dr Tsang Kay Yan said that the health authorities in China should use the testing kits more widely to get a clearer picture of the epidemic. Unfortunately, the delays in available testing kits in Wuhan are becoming a matter of life and death.
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