Bay Area infectious disease specialist develops coronavirus test with rapid results

Last week, we reported on a Bay Area infectious disease specialist working on developing a new test for the novel coronavirus. Now, University of California San Francisco lab director Dr. Charles Chiu has cut in half the time it takes to diagnose the illness.

His test will show results in less than two hours, which is much faster than the six hours it takes for the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention test. 

While much of the talk about coronavirus has been about how to contain it, Dr. Chiu said he thinks the speed of the diagnosis is critical to slowing the spread. 

The new breakthrough at Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center happened on Wednesday at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. 

Dr. Charles Chiu a professor of infectious diseases at UCSF has developed a test for coronavirus that provides results in less than two hours.

"This is basically it. It's just a series of steps," said Dr. Chiu. "It's really important to identify infections promptly or someone who may be infected promptly before he or she spreads the virus to other people." 

For more than a week, Chiu collaborated with a startup called Mammoth Labs. He was able to administer the test to a patient carrying the coronavirus on Wednesday. 

The result, a way to detect the pathogen in a carrier in less time that it takes now. 

 "Currently, the only clinically validated testing is done by the CDC and for testing to be done by the CDC to get a diagnosis, hospitals have to send the samples overnight to the CDC and it usually takes about four to six hours. So the turnaround time can be 24-hours long or longer to get a result," Chiu said. 

In an effort to speed up diagnosis, CDC said on Thursday that it will distribute new tests to diagnose coronavirus infection to state and international laboratories, but those tests still have a longer lag time. 

"They don't have the capacity of quarantining or isolating every patient that presents a suspected infection," Chiu said. 

At a hospital in Wuhan, China– where the virus originated– a newborn was infected with the coronavirus 36 hours after birth. In other parts of the city, mass quarantines have been ordered in what seems an uphill battle to curtail the pathogen that has killed hundreds of people and sickened tens of thousands. 

Dr. Chiu said his test can be administered quickly and eventually cut down on who needs to be quarantined.

Dealing with a virus where time is of the essence, Chiu will be depending on the Food and Drug Administration, which has a program that can fast-track approval of his test to get it into the hands of those who need it. 

"We're very interested in being able to deploy this test and make it widely available, not only in the United States, but perhaps more importantly to the regions of the developing world or low-resource countries," says Chiu. 

California Department of Public Health is ramping up its efforts to detect coronavirus. State health officials announced Thursday that Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory in Richmond will begin testing for the new virus next Wednesday, along with 15 other labs across the state. Officials said results from testing will be available within two days after receiving the specimen.