Public healthIs it a Virus or Bacteria? New Tech Rapidly Tests for Pathogens

Published 25 June 2021

The first line of defense against pandemics is the ability quickly to detect the presence or absence of previously unknown pathogens. DHS S&T is exploring a new technology that can discriminate between bacterial and viral infections using only a single drop of blood per patient.

Tools that can quickly detect the presence or absence of previously unknown pathogens are critical in an effective defense against future pandemics.

As a first step towards using such tools, the Department of Homeland Security (DHSScience and Technology Directorate (S&T) is investing in a new technology that can discriminate between bacterial and viral infections using only a single drop of blood per patient.

The hope is that by the time another major biological event—be it intentional, accidental or natural—comes knocking on our door, the United States will be able to quickly triage people for their next step of medical care. With this technology, front line medical personnel could use it to quickly determine the presence of either viral or bacterial infections in people and thereby best protect themselves, triage patients, and clear mass transport passengers for travel.

To make this a reality, S&T is working with the Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense (CBTSCenter of Excellence and two leading biotechnology companies to develop a virus-versus-bacteria detection/diagnostic platform called the Host Response Test System (HRTS). It comprises a ruggedized portable device that can differentiate between bacterial and viral infections within an hour, even in pre-symptomatic patients. S&T’s main interests in funding the HRTS effort are to help accelerate the development of pathogen-agnostic detection technology and to support interagency partners that have medical authority.

“Long before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar, S&T saw the importance of conducting better biological surveillance,” said CBTS Director Dr. Gregory Pompelli. “S&T wanted to make sure we had this tool for DHS and others, recognizing that we need better surveillance for biothreats.”

CBTS partnered with two companies: Predigen Inc., which developed the biomarkers that indicate the presence of viruses or bacteria, and Biomeme, Inc., which developed the Franklin™ thermocycler testing instrument to measure those biomarkers.

“Identifying potentially ill passengers and DHS staff sooner means they are less likely to spread infectious diseases and can get treatment earlier,” added CBTS Executive Director Dr. Heather Manley Lillibridge. “The Food and Drug Administration has granted Emergency Use Authorization for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 on the Biomeme instrument. In work performed at Duke University and supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Antibacterial Resistance Leadership Group, the Predigen bacterial/viral tests have been evaluated in 1,200 patients across the U.S. with acute respiratory illness.”