With the Ebola outbreak being declared an international public health emergency by the United Nations (UN), technology companies are rushing to meet the need for better and faster detection methods able to be used in the remote locations where health care workers are struggling to combat the crisis. Two such companies are Positive ID, based in Delray Beach, Florida and Noninvasive Medical Technologies, Inc.(NMT) of Las Vegas, Nevada. Positive ID has a prototype system which functions as a mobile lab, able to detect the presence of Ebola and other biological dangers in a matter of minutes at the point of need. This is in comparison to the several hours in a laboratory currently needed to run the same tests. The device is called the Firefly DX. NMT is using an existing technology called the ZOE Fluid Status Monitor in a new way to detect conditions inside the body characteristic of Ebola and other hemorrhagic illnesses before patients become externally symptomatic, prior to their becoming contagious. These two very different devices are both considered possible game changers in the fight to control the spread of Ebola, but for one company it is a matter of whether the technology can become field ready in time for it to make a significant impact.
The Firefly DX is a small, handheld machine which looks similar to a thick laptop, but which has a small hole in it for collected fluid samples and a system for rapid molecular analysis able to give results within about 20 minutes. The same analysis currently requires samples to be transported to a laboratory and processed for several hours to obtain the same results. The speed of the proprietary “polymerase chain reaction chemistry” combined with the portable nature of the device which would enable it to be used even in remote locations, would make it a powerful tool in early detection which could significantly impact the ability to curb the spread of the disease. Company representatives, however, are estimating at least a year, and probably closer to two depending on available funding, before the Firefly DX will be ready for use. While promising as a tool for use in the future, this makes it somewhat of a disappointment in light of the urgency of the need in the current crisis.
The ZOE Fluid Status Monitor is a device which has already been used in West Africa for the detection of Dengue Fever, another hemorrhagic disease found in the region. In the case of the Ebola virus, the unit is able to detect reductions in fluid levels characteristic to the disease before external symptoms manifest. This allows health care workers to diagnose patients prior to them becoming contagious, enabling early intervention and quarantine procedures. It also is able to distinguish, by way of the timeline of symptoms, between Ebola and other hemorrhagic diseases so that patients who do not have the virus are not grouped together because of external symptoms and do not end up contracting it because of misdiagnosis. In terms of being able to immediately impact the current situation, this technology presents a more viable option than the Firefly DX despite being less conclusive and subject to the interpretation of symptoms by health care personnel. NMT is already in the process of sending units over to West Africa to aid in the containment efforts ongoing there.
Given the fact that cases of Ebola are being discovered in the U.S. and other countries around the world, early detection and containment are an urgent priority. Both of these Ebola detection technologies are likely to play a large role in the international race to meet that need. They represent the tip of the iceberg, however, with researchers around the world working to perfect even more detection methods alongside those working to find new treatments and cures. This has become a global effort to prevent what is happening in West Africa from becoming a more widespread pandemic.
By Jim Malone