CDC Begins to Test Patients with Flu-like Symptoms for Coronavirus

February 18, 2020

The CDC’s plan for testing patients with flu for coronavirus will inform their response strategy, should the infection spread, the agency said.

In a call with members of the media on Friday, February 14, 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they will begin to test individuals with influenza-like-illness for the novel coronavirus. This will take place at public health labs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and New York City.

The CDC plans to expand this initiative to more cities in the coming weeks with the goal of eventually conducting national surveillance in order to guide response strategy.

“This is an extra layer of our response that will help us detect if and when this virus is spreading in the community,” said Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “All of our efforts are now to prevent the sustained spread of the virus in our community, but we need to be prepared for the possibility that it will spread.”

While this was a call focused on the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, Messonnier added that reports of the flu have increased the past few weeks.

Flu-related highlights from Messonnier’s briefing include:

  • Influenza B was the prominent strain in December, but there has been a sharp rise in influenza A (H1N1) cases recently.
  • Rates for hospitalized children are about as high as that of the 201718 season, which was considered a severe season.
  • Estimates indicate that there have been at least 26 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations, and 14,000 deaths from flu, including children. Those numbers are up from January, when the CDC reported 15 million cases of flu, 140,000 hospitalizations, and 8200 deaths.

In other news the novel coronavirus and the flu have similar typical symptoms including fever, cough or runny nose, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, lab testing is required to confirm if a patient has coronavirus.

WHO recommends that people with flu-like symptoms seek medical care early, and inform health care providers if they have traveled in the 14 days prior to onset of symptoms.

In other influenza news:

  • The Food and Drug Administration sent a notice to the makers of Purell to stop making unsubstantiated claims that their hand sanitizer product could reduce infections or prevent illnesses, according to the New York Times. The agency criticized the frequently asked questions section of the Purell website which seemed to suggest that because the product is made with ethyl alcohol, it could be effective against viruses, including the flu.
  • Investigators from the University of Alabama at Birmingham compared mutations in a flu strain from a 1972 outbreak in Russia to a strain from the 1918 Spanish flu. They learned that there is a naturally occurring mutation in the flu protein NS1, which can trigger an immune response. Chad Petit, PhD, an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, described NS1 as “the Swiss army knife of proteins because it has so many functions.” NS1 can interact with between 20 to 30 host proteins and the study authors believe it can have alternative virulence among different strains. The paper was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
  • A team at Rutgers University created a tool to monitor influenza A mutations in real time, as described in a study published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C. A related press release added that this is the first time “that experts have used imaging tools with gold nanoparticles to monitor mutations in influenza, with unparalleled sensitivity.” The tool will allow for further understanding by virologists about influenza A’s behavior as well as other RNA viruses. The tool will provide an upclose look at host cells to examine the external conditions or cell properties that have an impact on the disease. Instead of having to destroy the cells in order to gain this access, investigators will be able to see the viral replication as it occurs. In the future, the study team want to study the flu virus in animal models.