New York, March 11 (IANS) An academic researcher in Seattle has asserted that she had thousands of samples of flu specimens collected from people in Washington state which she wanted to use for monitoring the coronavirus, but was not allowed to do it by officials citing ethical reasons, media reports said.
Helen Y. Chu, an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington specialising in infectious diseases, had collected nasal swabs from people in the Puget Sound area of Washington State for a research project on flu, the The New York Times said.
She wanted to use the samples for coronavirus tests when reports about the disease emerged but officials would not permit it because she had not obtained permission to test for this disease, rather than flu, from those who had given the samples and because the labs she wanted to use were not certified for clinical tests, according to the newspaper.
Later a teenager, who had not travelled to China and whose sample she had collected, was found to have the coronavirus and if it had been discovered earlier, authorities could have taken action sooner.
Community spread, which is the infection spreading among people with no known connection to the places infected or persons affected by it, has been a baffling source of contagion for most of the 1,000 people with the disease in the US.
The Times said that Chu acknowledged “the ethical questions” but argued that there should be flexibility during emergencies.
The newspaper asserted, “The failure to tap into the flu study, detailed here for the first time, was just one in a series of missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier.”
“But the Seattle Flu Study illustrates how existing regulations and red tape -” sometimes designed to protect privacy and health – have impeded the rapid rollout of testing nationally, while other countries ramped up much earlier and faster,” the Times added.
Obtaining proper consent of people in scientific and medical research has emerged as an important issue in the US because of country’s scientific community’s past abuse of minorities in the name of research.
After the exposure of such abuse, regulations for using humans in medical trials have been made stringent, especially requiring explicit permission from the subject for what they can be used for.
Chu and her supporters appear to want blanket exemption from the regulations because of the coronavirus emergency.
In another context, Melissa Miller, the director of the University of North Carolina clinical molecular microbiology laboratory, told the Washington Post that regulations for hospital labs should have been eased for quicker response “when the CDC test was delayed, then the cases started appearing outside of China”.
The Seattle area of Washington state has the most serious outbreak of coronavirus in the US, recording 29 deaths so far. Many of the dead were elderly residents of a nursing home.
The US has had a problem with producing enough test kits and President Donald Trump has been criticised for it.
Although Trump had said that tests would be available to anyone who needed it, they have been provided only to people whose doctors have prescribed the test because of a serious shortage of test kits.
The US, because of stringent regulation, has not adopted the tests developed by China and Germany and is developing its own tests contributing to the delay.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially rolled out a limited number of test kits in early February that were found to be flawed.
Initially the samples were sent to the CDC for tests leading to delays, but after complaints from states, several local facilities and at least two private lab networks have received approval for processing the tests.
The administration is working with private pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production of the test kits.
By last Friday about 1 million test kits had been distributed, according to officials, and Vice President Mike Pence has said that 4 million test kits would be available by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, Politico reported that there is a shortage of materials for making the coronavirus tests and it could further hamper testing.
It quoted Robin Patel, the president of the American Society for Microbiology, as saying: “Increased demand for testing has the potential to exhaust supplies needed to perform the test itself.”