Eight tiny jars arrived on Friday, January 31, 2020 from the U.S. to the Biomedical Research Laboratory of the Polytechnic Superior School of the Coast (Espol), in Guayaquil. The dust inside is the reactive compound to detect the new coronavirus .
The researcher Washington Cárdenas, head of the laboratory, requested those ‘primers’ according to the guidelines released by the World Health Organization (WHO), available on his website after the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. In Espol they asked for reagents according to studies shared by Berlin and Hong Kong.
A month ago this university analyzes the behavior and the possible origin of 2019-nCoV. Cárdenas shows a map , marked by an infinity of codes. “It is the kinship analysis of the published virus genome,” he summarizes.
The country’s universities , which carry out research in the area of health , have equipment for PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), which is the tool with which a positive case of the new coronavirus can be detected.
The team – explains Nikolaos Kyriakidis, immunologist and research professor of Medicine at the University of the Americas (UDLA) – points to a specific genetic region of any organism.
It does so through primers or ‘primers’, very selectively in a genetic region of an organism and amplifies it until it can be detected by means of fluorescence .
If this specific genetic region of the virus is amplified in the sample of a patient , in this case of the new coronavirus 2019, it means that the patient is infected .
But machines alone cannot detect the coronavirus. They require kits , among which are the primers and other reagents. On Friday, Health Minister Catalina Andramuño said that Ecuador is the first country in Latin America to have them.
But the country awaits the results of the tests carried out on the Chinese citizen who remains in the Eugenio Espejo Hospital. They still do not arrive from Atlanta , where the Reference Infectious Disease Prevention Center is located. In the country, Izquieta Pérez is the authorized center.
Kyriakidis confirmed that WHO regulations state that all countries should send their first suspicious case to that CDC. If the reagents arrive and the first case is confirmed in Ecuador, he says, that ‘U’ would be ready to analyze suspicious cases.
The biosecurity precautions of the Atlanta CDC state that appropriate personal protective equipment such as gowns, gloves and eye protection should be used for handling samples .
“The sample must be processed in a certified Class II biological safety cabinet, following the guidelines of biosafety level 2 or higher.”
Santiago Guerrero, from the UTE Center for Genetic and Genomic Research, says they are prepared, not only with trained staff , but also with the teams.
What would be needed are the ‘primers’ and a positive control . It refers to the DNA of the virus. “This could be compared with the possible samples.”
The researcher argues that universities with this capacity could collaborate with the Ministry of Health to make this diagnosis faster.
For WHO, he clarifies, level two security is needed to analyze clinical samples. And to grow viruses, the 3, which only Izquieta Pérez has.
In Espol, Cárdenas comments that the new virus is associated with the SARS family, which appeared in 2003; and that came from bats .
This familiarity was also analyzed through the alignment of a nucleoprotein , a part of the virus that inhibits the action of the immune system when it enters the human cell. The trial , in which bioinformatics was applied, graphs an extensive line comparing MERS , the coronavirus that appeared in 2013, SARS and the novel coronavirus. Here again the similarity between these last two jumps and reflects a marked difference with MERS.
The new coronavirus is made up of about 30,000 nucleotides , which are the molecules that make up its long genetic chain or RNA. The ‘primers’ that they have designed in other countries, for example, have between 20 and 25 nucleotides.
A key part of the diagnosis is to have a fragment of the virus genome, a small and harmless segment that is used to verify positive results in molecular biology tests by RT-PCR. For that analysis, this laboratory asked a foreign company to synthesize a segment of about 150 nucleotides.
Juan Mosquera, a research professor at the USFQ Institute of Microbiology, says that the equipment is not enough, but that an infrastructure of a type three biosafety laboratory is necessary.