Munich: Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG said it’s introducing the first commercial test for the Wuhan coronavirus, which could help accelerate efforts to monitor the spread of the disease.
The pharmaceutical company said it’s ramping up production of high-tech machinery needed to use the tool. That could help resolve a thorny problem with the fast-spreading virus: so many people are getting sick in China that the laboratories that can screen for the virus are getting overwhelmed. That can cause delays, leaving hospitals unsure of who to quarantine and who can be sent home.
“There is a bottleneck,” Thomas Schinecker, head of Roche’s diagnostics division, said in an interview at the company’s Basel headquarters Thursday. “It’s really unknown how many people have the virus at the moment, and with our systems we can help to make testing much broader.”
The death toll from the virus has risen to 170 and more than 8,000 cases have been reported. The World Health Organization is meeting Thursday to consider declaring the virus an international public health emergency.
Roche, better known for developing cutting-edge drugs, doesn’t think any if its existing medicines would help coronavirus patients and isn’t looking to come up with a vaccine for the disease, Bill Anderson, head of Roche’s pharma unit, said in a separate interview.
Roche’s emergency response team of molecular diagnosticians in San Francisco sprang into action a few weeks ago when word of the Wuhan virus emerged. Working with partners including Tib-Molbiol in Berlin, they created a test that can diagnose the disease within a couple of hours in a sufficiently staffed lab.
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The test analyzes nucleic acids extracted from patients’ saliva or mucus, and compares them against sequences found in coronavirus strains, including SARS and the one that emerged in Wuhan.
Demand is high for the test. Roche informed Chinese officials last week that it’s available and learned the country needs at least 150 instruments, Schinecker said. Other countries are ordering them, too, anticipating a surge of coronavirus patients within their own borders. The machines in demand — including Roche’s MagNA Pure 24 and the LightCycler 480 devices — are manufactured at its plant in Rotkreuz, Switzerland.
Hurdles have emerged. China’s decision to cordon off whole cities — while helping to curb the spread of the disease — is making it harder to deliver Roche’s equipment to hospitals located in hot spots, Roche Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan told reporters Thursday. Roche is working with Chinese authorities to get shipments through as quickly as possible, Schwan said.
Meanwhile, Roche’s staff of 3,000 diagnostics unit workers in China are taking precautions against the pandemic, such as working from home as much as possible. That’s not possible for technicians needed to install, service and repair Roche’s machines. “This is life-critical, so we supply protection to our employees so that they can go in and do this work,” Schinecker said.
Because Roche’s test hasn’t cleared any regulatory hurdles, hospitals that use its tool for the time being will need to validate the results with other tests, Schinecker said. That’s pretty standard for any pandemic. Regardless, Roche is trying to collect enough data to ensure that the test is working properly, while also scaling up its ability to screen patients thanks to larger machinery and automation. The emergency response team at Roche’s molecular diagnostics unit is keeping track of any changes to the coronavirus’s makeup so that its test stays valid.
If past outbreaks are any indicator, the surge in demand for Roche’s machinery won’t add too much to the company’s overall sales, which reached 61.5 billion francs ($63.4 billion) in 2019.
“In the big context, in terms of sales, it’s not super high,” Schinecker said. “But the impact you have on the health-care system is very important.”- Bloomberg
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