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.
As standard masks are used they collect exhaled airborne pathogens that remain living in the masks’ fibers, rendering them infectious when handled
Surgical-style facial masks harbor a secret—viruses that could be infectious to the people wearing them. However, masks can become effective virus killers as well. At least that’s what researchers at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) in Edmonton, Canada, have concluded.
If true, such a re-engineered mask could protect clinical laboratory workers from exposure to infectious diseases, such as, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and Swine Influenza.
“Surgical masks were originally designed to protect the wearer from infectious droplets in clinical settings, but it doesn’t help much to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases such as SARS or MERS or influenza,” Hyo-Jick Choi, PhD, Assistant Professor in UAlberta’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, noted in a press release.
So, Choi developed a mask that effectively traps and kills airborne viruses.
Clinical Laboratory Technicians at Risk from Deadly Infectious Diseases
The global outbreak of SARS in 2003 is a jarring reminder of how infectious diseases impact clinical laboratories, healthcare workers, and patients. To prevent spreading the disease, Canadian-based physicians visited with patients in hotel rooms to keep the virus from reaching their medical offices, medical laboratory couriers were turned away from many doctors’ offices, and hospitals in Toronto ceased elective surgery and non-urgent services, reported The Dark Report—Dark Daily’s sister publication. (See The Dark Report, “SARS Challenges Met with New Technology,” April 14, 2003.)
UAlberta materials engineering professor Hyo-Jick Choi, PhD, (right) and graduate student Ilaria Rubino (left) examine filters treated with a salt solution that kills viruses. Choi and his research team have devised a way to improve the filters in surgical masks, so they can trap and kill airborne pathogens. Clinical laboratory workers will especially benefit from this protection. (Photo and caption copyright: University of Alberta.)
How Current Masks Spread Disease
How do current masks spread infectious disease? According to UAlberta researchers:
A cough or a sneeze transmits airborne pathogens such as influenza in aerosolized droplets;
Virus-laden droplets can be trapped by the mask;
The virus remains infectious and trapped in the mask; and,
Risk of spreading the infection persists as the mask is worn and handled.
“Aerosolized pathogens are a leading cause of respiratory infection and transmission. Currently used protective measures pose potential risk of primary and secondary infection and transmission,” the researchers noted in their paper, published in Scientific Reports.
That’s because today’s loose-fitting masks were designed primarily to protect healthcare workers against large respiratory particles and droplets. They were not designed to protect against infectious aerosolized particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In fact, the CDC informed the public that masks they wore during 2009’s H1N1 influenza virus outbreak provided no assurance of infection protection.
“Face masks help stop droplets from being spread by the person wearing them. They also keep splashes or sprays from reaching the mouth and nose of the person wearing the face mask. They are not designed to protect against breathing in very small particle aerosols that may contain viruses,” a CDC statement noted.
Pass the Salt: A New Mask to Kill Viruses
Choi and his team took on the challenge of transforming the filters found on many common protective masks. They applied a coating of salt that, upon exposure to virus aerosols, recrystallizes and destroys pathogens, Engineering360 reported.
“Here we report the development of a universal, reusable virus deactivation system by functionalization of the main fibrous filtration unit of surgical mask with sodium chloride salt,” the researchers penned in Scientific Reports.
The researchers exposed their altered mask to the influenza virus. It proved effective at higher filtration compared to conventional masks, explained Contagion Live. In addition, viruses that came into contact with the salt-coated fibers had more rapid infectivity loss than untreated masks.
How Does it Work?
Here’s how the masks work, according to the researchers:
Aerosol droplets carrying the influenza virus contact the treated filter;
The droplet absorbs salt on the filter;
The virus is exposed to increasing concentration of salt; and,
The virus is damaged when salt crystallizes.
“Salt-coated filters proved highly effective in deactivating influenza viruses regardless of [influenza] subtypes,” the researchers wrote in Scientific Reports. “We believe that [a] salt-recrystallization-based virus deactivation system can contribute to global health by providing a more reliable means of preventing transmission and infection of pandemic or epidemic diseases and bioterrorism.”
Other Reports on Dangerous Exposure for Clinical Laboratory Workers
This is not the first time Dark Daily has reported on dangers to clinical laboratory technicians and ways to keep them safe.
In “Health of Pathology Laboratory Technicians at Risk from Common Solvents like Xylene and Toluene,” we reported on a 2011 study that determined medical laboratory technicians who handle common solvents were at greater risk of developing auto-immune connective tissue diseases.
The UAlberta team may have come up with an inexpensive, simple, and effective way to protect healthcare workers and clinical laboratory technicians. Phlebotomists, laboratory couriers, and medical technologists also could wear the masks as protection from accidental infection and contact with specimens. It will be interesting to follow the progress of this special mask with its salty filter.
Growth in global IVD markets is indicator of increasing demand for clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology testing
During the next 24 months, the global in vitro diagnostics (IVD) market is predicted to exceed $50-billion in revenues. However, this robust growth has an upside and a downside for the clinical laboratories and pathology groups that purchase IVD analyzers, reagents, and consumables.
In a recent story in about the IVD industry, Frost & Sullivan, a global consulting and research firm, made predictions in different segments of the IVD market. It won’t surprise pathologists and clinical laboratory managers that the two fastest-growing segments are molecular and tissue diagnostics. (more…)
Leaders in this field are calling these developments “transformative” and say they have the potential to change “all aspects of microbiology.” The driver to this emerging trend is advanced technology that makes it possible to sequence the whole gene sequence of an organism in a day or less, for a cost that is $1,000 and falling rapidly.
In the past six months, microbiologists and pathologists at such hospitals as Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, have begun to do whole genome sequencing of microbes found in specimens collected from patients arriving in the emergency room. The New York Times wrote about these developments in a story titled “The New Generation of Microbe Hunters,” that it published on August 29, 2011.
Clinical laboratory managers should be planning for a busy flu season this fall
Yesterday the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared that A/H1N1 influenza (swine flu) is a global pandemic. This is the first such flu pandemic in 41 years. The announcement was not a surprise, since it was know that WHO was prepared to make this declaration weeks ago. But objections from several countries that such a declaration might trigger civil unrest and economic disruption caused WHO to defer this decision until yesterday.
There was little drama to this development, since the new A/H1N1 strain of the influenza virus has not turned out to be especially virulent or lethal. As of Wednesday, WHO released information that 74 countries have reported 27,737 cases of A/H1N1 flu and 141 deaths attributed to this virus. In the United States, the case count has topped 13,000 with at least 27 deaths confirmed to this strain of influenza.