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[MANILA] Scientists in Singapore have developed a diagnostic kit that can detect all known strains of avian influenza (H5N1) virus within a few hours — a medical breakthrough, which is expected to limit chances of a global pandemic. 

Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) have developed the most comprehensive and rapid H5N1 test kit to date — the H5N1 real-time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) assay.

At present, the World Health Organization-recommended H5N1 diagnostic kit can detect only three out of ten distinct genetic groups. The other seven can be detected, but not within a single test.

The newly developed kit is capable of detecting all known strains of the H5N1 virus accurately and rapidly, with a single test.

"Our technology has greatly simplified and accelerated the process of detection and identification of new H5N1 variants. Such information is especially critical when the virus mutates to become more dangerous," said Masafumi Inoue, senior research scientist at A*STAR.

Alongside Timothy Barkham, a senior consultant in clinical microbiology and laboratory medicine at TTSH, Inoue developed the new diagnostic kit, which has been clinically validated by several hospitals in Southeast Asia.

The avian flu virus is usually lethal to birds, but, until recently, was not known to be transmissible to humans through direct contact. In 1997, the first person known to catch avian flu died in Hong Kong, leading to the cull of millions of domestic poultry.

H5N1 has now spread to 61 countries and has killed more than 350 people since 2003, according to the WHO. In infected patients, death rates are 60 per cent.

In 2012, China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam all reported deaths from avian flu.

Experts fear H5N1 could mutate into an even deadlier form, spreading between humans and leading to a global pandemic capable of killing millions of people.

The key to curbing its spread is the accuracy and speed of H5N1 detection. This is where the new kit would be most useful, said Sarah Chang, an A*STAR spokesperson.  

Chang explained that the virus had mutated greatly in the past 5 years. However existing detection kits — most of which were designed almost ten years ago — are based on the original virus information, and are therefore increasingly redundant. 

AITbiotech Pte Ltd, a regional provider of genomic services and molecular diagnostics kits, has signed a licence agreement with A*STAR to market the kit regionally.