Tulane University researchers working with the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium based in Sierra Leone are racing against the clock to develop a fast and easy diagnostic test that would give healthcare workers a 15-minute process to test patients for Ebola with a simple finger-stick. In June, the National Institutes of Health awarded the group and Corgenix Medical Corp. $2.9 million for the project. The first step in the testing process would be to perform a finger-stick on the patient using a safety lancet. (Photos courtesy Matt Boisen, Corgenix Medical Corp.)

NEW ORLEANS — Scientists with Tulane University are working frantically to change develop a finger-prick test to more quickly diagnose Ebola infections, according to areport on nola.com.

Dr. Robert Garry, the Tulane professor of microbiology and immunology who helps lead the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium based in Sierra Leone, said that early detection and diagnosis should go a long way toward stemming the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

In June, the National Institutes of Health awarded his team and Corgenix Medical Corp. $2.9 million to develop a rapid diagnostic test that would give health care workers a fast and easy way to test patients for Ebola with a simple finger-stick.

“Everyone has their shoulder to the wheel to get this done,” Garry said from his office on the New Orleans campus.

Not only could the test allow doctors and nurses to respond more quickly to patients who need to be isolated, it gives them a way to draw blood without exposing health care workers to as much risk as they face using syringes with long needles.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other officials confirmed Sunday that a nurse who had cared for deceased patient Thomas Eric Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas had become infected. Hospital and federal officials said that it was probably the result of an accidental breach in protective protocol, even though she was said to have been wearing a gown, mask, shield and gloves while having contact with him.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the Department of Defense emergency authorization to use a similar finger-prick test on military personnel, aid workers and emergency responders in labs designated by the U.S. military to respond to Ebola. The fast-track authorization allows providers to use the test for limited purposes even though it hasn’t gone through the lengthy process required for full FDA approval.

Garry said his team is working against the clock to make its own test better and more accurate. The device is in the test phase now and has not been deployed into the field. Garry said that when developers are satisfied with its effectiveness in detecting Ebola in patients, he expects the FDA will also grant emergency authorization for its use. Otherwise, it could be years before doctors and nurses have it at the ready in emergency rooms and doctors offices. It could also be used in airports and other ports of entry.

The Tulane researchers’ test is designed to detect Ebola proteins, while the Pentagon’s test examines viral genomes.

Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness at the Louisiana Office of Public Health, said that the need for a rapid test is clear. He said current estimates for test turnaround in Louisiana is 24 to 72 hours, partly because of the time it takes to transport it to one of 14 approved laboratories. In addition to the health concern that presents, the wait could also have implications for the government’s ability to communicate about the public health risks.

“Not having to wait would help internationally slow and quell this outbreak exponentially,” Welch said. “There is no bad news with having this test.”

It takes between two and 21 days for patients who become infected with Ebola to begin showing symptoms. As time passes, the virus gets worse and more contagious — and it is only when you are showing symptoms that you are infectious.

If it takes one to three days to send a vial of blood to a lab, that’s one to three days when the virus is taking over a patient’s body with worsening symptoms such as projectile vomiting and diarrhea — symptoms that increase the chances that others could come in contact with the disease since Ebola is spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids.

By the time Duncan was isolated at a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on the morning of Sept. 28, he’d been symptomatic and infectious for at least three days,according to medical records obtained by The Associated Press, and had possibly come into contact with 49 others, according to the CDC. Had a 15-minute test been available to nursing staff at the time he first reported to the hospital on Sept. 25, it’s likely the illness could have been better contained.