Even after 111 reported deaths and 2,781 cases (as of April 10, 2003) resulting from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has hit almost 17countries across the world since February, no conclusive test for identifying it has been developed so far.
India's SRL Ranbaxy Laboratories has developed test panels (kits) to help doctors and health bodies arrive at a diagnosis of acute respiratory illnesses that clinically resembles SARS.
As of now, the disease is not being adequately identified due to lack of testing facilities. Dr Sumedha Sahni, director (operations) of SRL Ranbaxy Laboratories says doctors are working backwards currently, that is they are working with SARS-affected patient's specimen and then trying to devise a test based on that.
Dr Sahni feels that there are many people suffering from respiratory illnesses and in these times, it can get difficult to differentiate between those ailments and SARS, which is why the tests are important.
"SARS is not a disease. It is a syndrome. The grade varies in different people but let me tell you, cure is the norm. Death is by exception," says Dr Sahni.
SRL Ranbaxy had conceptualialised the idea of setting up a panel for identifying respiratory ailments around three years ago and started work on it four months back, even before the SARS virus broke out. The need for such a panel arose due to the lack of insufficient diagnosis tests for respiratory illnesses.
Globally, three causative agents of SARS have been identified -- paramyxo, corona and chlamydia. The panels set up by SRL Ranbaxy cover all these, except the corona virus. The laboratory is now working towards a test for the corona virus as well.
One panel developed by Ranbaxy will test viral pneumonia like influenza A virus, influenza B virus, parainfluenza virus, respiratory syncitial virus and enterovirus. The second panel will test bacterial pneumonia like streptococcus pneumoniae, mycoplasma pneumoniae and chlamydia.
Each of these panels is priced at Rs 2500 and SRL Ranbaxy is now in the process of spreading awareness about it. The laboratory, which is India's first laboratory to be accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration and the College of American Pathologists, is aiming at marketing its product through its approximately 500 centres all over India.
Doctors at present are following the World Health Organisation prescribed methods to treat SARS suspects. Sahni feels over cautious doctors might prescribe the one antiobiotic, two antivirals and one steroid recommendation for people who may not even be suffering from the syndrome.
"That would be inappropriate, expensive and unwarranted. Anyone who has traveled to South-East Asian countries and has even a cough or cold, will want to confirm with a doctor about SARS, so these tests are recommended," says Sahni.
Recently, when a 23-year old American photographer Rebecca Raleigh was suspected to be Mumbai's first SARS victim, the Maharashtra government approached SRL Ranbaxy, along with Pune-based National Institute of Virology to test the blood samples.
Sahni now hopes to meet the Union health ministry to inform the Centre about the availability of these tests.