A Toronto-based company is on the leading edge of developing rapid Ebola testing and managing health data in West Africa.
Buoyed by a $700,000-grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fio Corporation is adapting its mobile devices to provide Ebola test results in minutes, instead of hours or days, as well as crucial management of the data collected.
"If this device is in remote areas in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, you’ll be able to get point-of-care tests quickly,” Dr. Elias Sory, a director at Fio, said at his Accra-based office.
- CBC's Ebola coverage
- Ebola outbreak: Mali's last known case released
- Canadian-developed Ebola vaccine trial suspended
Fio’s devices could also help front-line workers effectively trace the disease.
"We can ask how many people you live with, who you have seen, where they are and it can be tracked," said Sory.
Fio’s device is called a Deki Reader. It was recently approved and put into commercial use in Ghana, among dozens of other countries, to detect malaria.
In many African countries, malaria is the go-to diagnosis. Anyone complaining of a headache, muscle stiffness or fatigue is often treated for the virus without any testing whatsoever. At Lesson Pharmacy, a bustling dispensary in Accra, the test is being used several times a day to check for malaria.
"It’s a waste. In terms of cost, probably you’re buying it to treat malaria and you don’t have malaria. You’re experiencing side-effects (from the treatment), which makes you uncomfortable," said pharmacist Kwaku Ankamah.
'It could be fatigue'
On this day, he’s already had two patients take the Fio test, with negative results for malaria.
His third patient turns out to be his own brother, who has contracted malaria many times and has been feeling sick recently.
“It’s just headache and body ache. It could be fatigue, but it’s always proper to have a test to know what it is," Kwadwo Ankamah said.
His test is simple; it requires just a drop of blood, drawn by pricking his ring finger.
That tiny sample of Ankamah’s blood is dropped into a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) strip and the strip is placed into Fio’s Deki Reader.
In just 18 minutes, an insistent beep indicates the results are in.
Like a pregnancy test
The strip reads much like a home pregnancy test. If there are two lines showing, the test is positive for malaria; one line indicates a negative result.
"Negative," a relieved Kwadwo Ankamah said.
"I’m malaria-free. So the symptoms are probably just fatigue.”
His negative results are then sent via text message to his phone. All of the data, including his negative test, is uploaded immediately from the Deki Reader to a cloud database, where it is accessible to public health managers.
- Ebola spreading intensely in Sierra leone as global toll rises
- Ebola cases exceed 16,000 worldwide, WHO says
The system will soon be available to test for other diseases, including HIV.
But the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the most urgent public health need at the moment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it is still running behind the spread of the virus.
Get a clearer picture
Fio’s technology is already being tested on lab-stored blood samples in the Ebola zone and it will be tested on actual patients in early 2015.
The Canadian company’s goal is to reduce time to lab test Ebola from hours and even days to just minutes and through data management help paint a more clear picture of how and where the Ebola virus is spreading.
"It is crucial for health workers to capture data at point of care. It’s equally crucial to treat immediately, on first encounter with the patient," said Fio CEO Dr. Michael M. Greenberg. "But you can’t treat what you haven’t diagnosed."
Fio's technology "fuses automated data capture with on-the-spot diagnostics," Greenberg said. "The Gates Foundation is accelerating our capability to be of service in the Ebola crisis."