In an effort to get ahead of the flu season this fall, federal health officials have granted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention power to use a test that can detect viruses that cause both the flu and COVID-19.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that they issued the CDC an emergency use authorization for the test for people suspected of having the coronavirus, the agency said in a statement.
The new diagnostic test could help alleviate stress on hospital resources during the upcoming flu season and help curb the spread of both viruses by providing quicker results.
“With the authorization of these tests, the FDA is helping address concerns in anticipation of this upcoming flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic, which might be especially worrying for some Americans,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn. “With just one swab or sample, combination tests can be used to get answers to Americans faster. This efficiency can go a long way to providing timely information for those sick with an unknown respiratory ailment.”
Symptoms are similar
The flu and COVID-19 present similar symptoms, but they are caused by different viruses: influenza and SARS-CoV-2, respectively, according to the CDC.
But because of the similarities, clinicians must depend on testing to confirm which illness a patient has.
The new test requires just one sample, the FDA said, meaning faster results and fewer supplies needed — such as swabs and personal protective equipment.
Patients are also relieved of the potential burden of multiple swabs, which tend to be uncomfortable.
In April, CDC Director Robert Redfield told the Washington Post, “there’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through. We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”
In a subsequent statement during a White House briefing, Redfield said he wanted to clarify his comments, according to Live Science: “”I think it’s really important to emphasize what I didn’t say. I didn’t say [the next wave of COVID-19] was going to be worse. I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially complicated because we’ll have flu and coronavirus circulating at the same time.”
The new test could potentially help ease those difficulties this flu season.
‘Rapid diagnostics’ can help
Dr. Benjamin Singer, a Northwestern Medicine pulmonologist who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit, said more than 20% of COVID-19 patients have had both SARS-CoV-2 and another respiratory pathogen in their system, including the flu, according to an editorial he wrote published May 29 in the journal Science Advances.
“Widespread availability of rapid diagnostics” can help patients receive the appropriate care they need before it’s too late, Singer wrote.
He said social distancing measures implemented to curb coronavirus spread could also help limit the spread of the flu, “flattening the curve for both viruses.”
And while the world waits for a coronavirus vaccine, “we should plan to increase rates of vaccination against the flu, particularly among older adults who are more susceptible to both the flu and COVID-19,” Singer said.
The CDC estimates that between 39 million and 56 million people in the U.S. were sickened with the flu during the 2019-20 season, which usually runs from October through April, sometimes May.
The FDA said this test marks the third one that has been issued an emergency use authorization — the approval of “unapproved medical products… to be used in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions” — but is the first one given to the CDC.