New coronavirus test at Hackensack Meridian sites across NJ can get results in hours

A quick test to help triage emergency room patients with potential coronavirus infections is being introduced today at hospitals in the Hackensack Meridian Health system across New Jersey.

The test, developed by scientists in Nutley at the Center for Discovery and Innovation, takes hours rather than days to produce results. It's intended to aid decisions about treatment and relieve pressure on the state public health laboratory.

“It’s fast and it’s accurate, and crucial hours could mean the difference in stopping the spread of this virus,” said David S. Perlin, the center’s chief scientific officer and an expert on global infectious diseases. Perlin helped develop tests for SARS, a different strain of coronavirus, during that 2003 epidemic.

New Jersey has 25 patients who are "presumed positive" for coronavirus, and dozens more awaiting test results. Almost all diagnoses have been made by the state public health laboratory, which can do 20 tests at a time and has materials from the federal government for about 400 more coronavirus tests.

The new "point-of-care" test will help clinicians determine more quickly whether patients suspected of having COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, should remain in isolation or can be treated without such rigorous precautions. The actual results will be processed at Hackensack University Medical Center's federally licensed laboratory.

Officials at Hackensack Meridian stressed that the test is not available to people with mild symptoms or those who think they have been exposed but haven’t developed any signs of illness. Its use will be based on current guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control. Initially, the health system will test 24 patients every eight hours, a statement said.

“What we don’t want is a lot of patients showing up to be tested because they don’t feel well," the health system's statement said. "Only patients at Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals who are experiencing severe symptoms will be tested."

Before seeking a test, those with symptoms should consult their doctors to see if they meet the criteria.

The new test combines elements of the test kits developed by the CDC in January, and tests developed in Germany and approved by the World Health Organization. Yanan Zhao, an expert in rapid molecular diagnostics and a leader of Perlin's lab at the center, played a key role.

The center received samples of live virus from the CDC last week, through the intervention of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, who visited the center two weeks ago and heard of their need. The virus samples were used to validate the test.

 It has been approved under a preliminary emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and by the state Department of Health.

Positive test results will be reported to the state, but do not require confirmation from the state laboratory, a health system spokeswoman said. 

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