ATLANTA — The government approved a new genetic test for the flu virus Tuesday that will allow labs across the country to identify flu strains within four hours instead of four days.
The timesaving test could be crucial if a deadly new strain emerges, federal health officials said. The new test also could help doctors make better treatment decisions during a conventional flu season.
The new test was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Applied Biosystems Inc. of Foster City, Calif. The Food and Drug Administration approved the test kit Tuesday, and state health labs are expected to start using it this fall.
CDC officials celebrated it as a potential lifesaver, especially if the nation is hit by a pandemic of bird flu or some other mutant influenza.
The CDC is requiring labs to buy Applied Biosystems equipment to run the test, and the CDC will provide the necessary chemicals. About 20 to 30 state labs should be up and running by the end of the year, CDC officials said.
Six state labs evaluated the new test and found it to be as good as the "gold standard" traditional viral culture method, said Pete Shult, who oversees infectious disease testing at Wisconsin's state laboratory and was involved in that review.
The test correctly detected the most common flu viruses about 99 percent of the time. It also picked up some viruses that the older test missed.
The test could be handy for dealing with conventional flu, said Dr. Doug Lowery-North, an Emory University emergency physician who does flu research.
Doctors usually don't have the luxury of waiting three or four days for lab tests before deciding how to treat a flu-stricken patient. But getting a faster, better reading on the type of flu might help in prescribing the best medication, Lowery-North said.
Each year, the flu results in 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths, according to official estimates.