Lab should get kit for new flu soon

BY TESSA McLEAN | MAY 06, 2009 7:30 AM

With one confirmed case and 29 probable cases of the H1N1 virus in Iowa, the UI Hygienic Laboratory was running without incident Tuesday morning.

While officials have reallocated additional staff to the laboratory and set up a call center to answer questions, it’s hard to tell when walking down the halls of the quiet building.

But soon the lab — which handles the state’s testing for the virus — will be able to confirm its own cases instead of sending probable cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. Confirming cases locally will decrease turnaround time from 72 hours to 24, which Michael Pentella, associate director for infectious diseases for the Hygienic Laboratory, said will happen “very soon.”

“From the time the specimen is collected [by a physician], is transported to the laboratory where we start the tests and do the procedures, when we have a large number like this, it can take anywhere from four to six hours,” he said.

The CDC is issuing kits nationally to labs to be able to conduct testing on their own; Hygienic Laboratory spokeswoman Pat Blake said local officials have conducted 923 tests but haven’t been able to independently confirm them.

As of Tuesday, local officials were still sending cases to Atlanta for testing, which is dealing with a backlog of tests. The CDC has to confirm five cases already confirmed by the Hygienic Laboratory for local officials to be able to begin testing on their own. Laboratory officials must also complete a verification process and get their procedures down first, Pentella said. Six laboratory employees will go through training on how to test correctly, including participating in a teleconference.

Polly Carver-Kimm, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the kits have a specific agent in them that isn’t widely available. It had to be created by the CDC to respond to the new virus strain.

The testing involves swabbing specimen from deep inside the nose. If ribonucleic acid is present in the virus, testers will determine if the influenza is Type A or B. Type A could be H1N1, Pentella said. They then subtype it to find out if it is the new strain or the seasonal type most are used to in flu season.

The lab has received one kit, which will accommodate 200 tests. The lab can request more if needed. Pentella said he did not know what the total national supply was like but said it is helpful the CDC was able to work with the Federal Drug Administration to get the product to the lab as quickly as they did.

The CDC is working to get a vaccine available for this virus, he said, and it will be as important to get as the annual flu vaccine.

“I think it’s always important to know what pathogens are in the community,” he said. “It’s nothing you should be too concerned about, but on the other hand you should do as you would every fall to avoid seasonal flu.”

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