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Low-cost Zika virus test could be ready in months

A rapid test which researchers say can detect the Zika virus more accurately than current methods is in the works. It would cost less than a dollar per patient.

Researchers at Harvard University say the new test can pick up the Zika virus in blood or saliva "at significantly lower concentrations than previously possible."

An international team, coordinated by Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, published their findings in the journal "Cell." The scientists were able to build on previous work done at Wyss to prototype the diagnositc test within just six weeks.

Their discovery will be a relief for public health authorities tackling the spread of the virus in South America, who have complained about the lack of standardized diagnostic tests.

"The vivid images in the news stemming from the ongoing Zika crisis are heartbreaking," said Keith Pardee, Ph.D., one of the study's co-first authors. "We hope a tool like this can help reduce the impact of the outbreak until a vaccine can be developed."

Zika laboratory in Puerto Rico

Scientists are racing to discover an anti-Zika vaccine

The tool has been tested successfully on monkeys and could be available in the next few months, costing less than a dollar per patient.

The test shows its results "through a simple 'color-change' assay, which an untrained eye can easily use to evaluate whether Zika is present or not in a biological sample," according to the report.

Simpler and cheaper

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has already approved two tests for diagnosing Zika, known as the Zika MAC-ELISA and Trioplex Real-Time RT-PCR Assay. However, the tests are complicated and sometimes confuse Zika with similar viruses such as West Nile or dengue.

In their report, the team behind the discovery said the new test would "improve upon key limitations of currently available options for Zika detection, such as potential cross-reactivity with closely-related viruses and a lack of specialized skills or equipment to screen for the virus outside of large urban areas."

Meanwhile, another study unveiled details about how the mosquito-borne Zika virus attacks the brain, killing and shrinking cells and resulting in babies born with unusually small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.

Published in the journal "Cell Stem Cell", the research was led by scientists at the University of San Diego School of Medicine.

They found that Zika activates an immune receptor - called TLR3 - in the brain.

The latest outbreak of the Zika virus has been mostly confined to the Americas, including Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean, where it has reached pandemic levels, according to the World Health Organization.

Scientists have warned that the virus may be on its way to the US and Europe.

Watch video 05:02

The mysterious Zika virus

mm/bw (AFP)

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