Japanese scientists who developed the detection method hope to use it to create ‘easy testing kits that anyone can use’
What do ostriches and humans have in common during the current COVID-19 pandemic? The unexpected answer is that ostrich antibodies can be used to identify humans infected with COVID-19. If proven viable in healthcare settings, the possibility exists that new clinical laboratory tests could be developed based on wearable diagnostics technologies that pathologists would interpret for doctors and patients.
The KPU scientists conducted a small study with 32 COVID-19 patients over a 10-day span. The surgical-style masks they wore later glowed around the nose and mouth areas but became dimmer over time as their viral load decreased.
“The ostrich antibody for corona placed on the mouth filter of the mask captures the coronavirus in coughing, sneezing, and water,” the researchers explained in Study Finds.
Tsukamoto himself learned he had contracted COVID-19 after wearing a prototype mask and noticing it glowed under UV light. A PCR test later confirmed his diagnosis, Kyodo News reported.
The KPU team “hopes to further develop the masks so they will glow automatically, without special lighting, if the [COVID-19] virus is detected.” Reuters noted in its coverage of the ostrich-antibody masks.
Making Medicine from Ostrich Antibodies
A profile in Audubon noted that Tsukamoto, who also serves as a veterinary medicine professor at Kyoto Prefectural University, made ostriches the focus of his research since the 1990s as he looked for ways to harness the dinosaur-like bird’s properties to fight human infections. He maintains a flock of 500 captive ostriches. Each female ostrich can produce 50 to 100 eggs/year over a 50-year life span.
Tsukamoto’s research focuses on customizing the antibodies in ostrich eggs by injecting females with inactive viruses, allergens, and bacteria, and then extracting the antibodies to develop medicines for humans. Antibodies form in the egg yolks in about six weeks and can be collected without harming the parent or young.
“The idea of using ostrich antibodies for therapeutics in general is a very interesting concept, particularly because of the advantages of producing the antibodies from eggs,” Ashley St. John, PhD, an Associate Professor in Immunology, at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, told Audubon.
While more clinical studies will be needed before ostrich-antibody masks reach the commercial marketplace, Tsukamoto’s team is planning to expand their experiment to 150 participants with a goal of receiving Japanese government approval to begin selling the glowing COVID-detection masks as early as 2022. But they believe the ostrich-antibody technique ultimately may lead to development of an inexpensive COVID-19 testing kit.
“We can mass-produce antibodies from ostriches at a low cost. In the future, I want to make this into an easy testing kit that anyone can use,” Tsukamoto told Kyodo News.
Harvard, MIT Also Working on COVID-19 Detecting Facemask
According to Fast Company, the MIT/Harvard COVID-19-detecting masks use the same core technology as previous paper tests for Ebola and Zika that utilize proteins and nucleic acids embedded in paper that react to target molecules.
“They would especially be useful in situations where local variant outbreaks are occurring, allowing people to conveniently test themselves at home multiple times a day,” he told Fast Company.
“It’s on par specificity and sensitivity that you will get in a state-of-the-art [medical] laboratory, but with no one there,” Luis Ruben Soenksen, PhD, Venture Builder in Artificial Intelligence and Healthcare at MIT and one of the co-authors of the Nature Biotechnology study, told Fast Company.
As the definition of “wearable diagnostic technology” broadens, pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists may see their roles expand to include helping consumers interpret data collected by point-of-care testing technology as well as performing, evaluating, and interpreting laboratory test results that come from non-traditional sources.
Asian locales reacted swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 by leveraging lessons learned from previous pandemics and making use of serology testing in aggressive contact tracing
America’s healthcare leaders in government, hospitals, clinical pathology, and medical laboratories can learn important lessons from the swift responses to the early outbreaks of COVID-19 in countries like Taiwan and South Korea and in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.
Strategies such as early intervention, commitment to tracing contacts of infected people within two hours, quarantines, and social distancing all contributed to significantly curtailing the spread of the latest coronavirus pandemic within their borders, The New York Times (NYT) reported.
Another response common to the efforts of these countries and cities was the speedy introduction of clinical laboratory tests for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), supported by the testing of tens of thousands of people in the earliest stages of the outbreaks in their communities. And that preparation and experience is paying off as those countries and cities continue to address the spread of COVID-19.
‘We Look at SARS as the Dress Rehearsal’
“Maybe it’s because of our Asian context, but our community
is sort of primed for this. We will keep fighting, because isolation and
quarantine work,” Lalitha
Kurupatham, Deputy Director of the Communicable Diseases Division in
Singapore, told the NYT. “During peacetime, we plan for epidemics like
Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists may recall that Hong Kong was the site of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. About 8,096 people worldwide were infected, and 774 died from SARS, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Hong Kong, 299 died out of 1,755 cases. However, Singapore had just 238 cases and 33 deaths.
To what does Singapore attribute the country’s lower
COVID-19 infection/death rate today?
“We can look at SARS as the dress rehearsal. The experience was raw, and very, very visceral. And on the back of it, better systems were put in place,” Jeremy Lim, MD, Co-Director of the Leadership Institute for Global Health Transformation at the National University of Singapore, told TIME.
“It’s a mix of carrots and sticks that have so far helped us. The US should learn from Singapore’s response and then adapt what is useful,” Lim added.
Singapore Debuts Serology Testing for COVID-19 Tracking
As microbiologists and infectious diseases doctors know, serology tests work by identifying antibodies that are the sources of infection. In the case of COVID-19, these tests may have aided in the surveillance of people infected with the coronavirus.
This is one lesson the US is learning.
“CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has developed two serological tests that we’re evaluating right now, so we can get an idea through surveillance what’s the extent of this outbreak and how many people really are infected,” Robert Redfield, MD, CDC Director, told STAT.
As of March 27, Singapore (located about 2,374 miles from
mainland China with a population of 5.7 million) had reported 732 COVID-19
cases and two deaths, while Hong Kong had reported 518 cases and four deaths.
According to Time, in its effort to battle and treat
COVID-19, Singapore took the following steps:
Clinical laboratory testing for COVID-19 of all
people presenting with “influenza-like” and pneumonia symptoms;
Contact tracing of each infected person,
including interviews, review of flight manifests, and police involvement;
Using locally developed test to find antibodies
after COVID-19 clears;
Ran ads on page one of newspapers urging people
with mild symptoms to see a doctor; and
Government paid $100 Singapore dollars per day to
quarantined self-employed people.
The Singapore government’s WhatsApp account shares updates on the coronavirus, and Singapore citizens acquire wearable stickers after having their temperature checked at building entrances, Wired reported. The article also noted teams of healthcare workers are kept separate in hospitals—just in case some workers have to be quarantined.
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Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, citizens donned face masks and
pressured the government to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. Officials subsequently
tightened borders with mainland China and took other action, the NYT reported.
Once the COVID-19 genetic sequence became available, national medical laboratory networks in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan developed their own diagnostic tests, reported The Lancet, which noted that the countries also expanded capacity for testing and changed financing systems, so people would not have to pay for the tests. In Singapore, the government pays for hospitalization as well, noted The Lancet.
The US has far less experience with pandemics, as compared to the Asian locales that were affected by the H1N1 influenza (Spanish Flu) of 1918-1920 and the H5N1 influenza (Avian Flu) of 1957-1958.
And, controversially, National Security Council (NSC) officials in 2018 discontinued the federal US Pandemic Response Unit, moving the NSC employees into other government departments, Associated Press reported.
According to the March 26 US Coronavirus Task Force’s televised
news conference, 550,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed nationwide and
results suggest 86% of those tested are negative for the disease.
The fast-moving virus and rapidly developing story are placing
medical laboratory testing in the global spotlight. Pathologists and clinical laboratory
leaders have a unique opportunity to advance the profession, as well as improving
the diagnosis of COVID-19 and the health of patients.