Hackensack Meridian Health launches rapid-response coronavirus test

NUTLEY, NJ — Hackensack Meridian Health recently announced that its Center for Discovery and Innovation, located in Nutley, has created a test to dramatically reduce the time it takes for diagnosing COVID-19. According to a press release from the organization, this is a major advance that will benefit patients, create a more effective triage system in hospitals and potentially better control the spread of disease.

“Our mission at Hackensack Meridian Health is to transform health care and this new rapid test does precisely that,” said Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health. “We are all proud to provide this game-changing diagnostic tool, which will ultimately benefit communities far beyond New Jersey. I applaud the efforts of the CDI in achieving this breakthrough.’’

The new diagnostic tool will reduce the current process of testing for COVID-19 from days to hours. The test permits the network to quarantine and treat patients suspected of having COVID-19 more rapidly or, in the case of a negative result, spare the patient unnecessary time in the hospital. The Center for Discovery and Innovation received preliminary “emergency use authorization” from the Food and Drug Administration to start using the test immediately. The state Department of Health has also approved the test.

“The Department of Health commends Hackensack Meridian Health’s effort in bringing online their laboratory to test for SARS-COV-2 and adding more testing capacity in New Jersey,’’ NJDOH Assistant Commissioner Chris Neuwirth said. “As more hospital and commercial laboratories begin testing, New Jersey residents will have greater access to SARS-COV-2 diagnostic testing and public health officials will have a greater ability to monitor, track, and respond to new cases.”

The CDI test combines elements of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diagnostic, and a test developed in Germany and adopted by the World Health Organization. CDI experts began work on the test in mid-January, following the outbreak of the virus first identified in China in December 2019.

“We believe our test could make the difference in stemming outbreaks,” said David Perlin, chief scientific officer and senior vice president at CDI. “It’s fast and it’s accurate, and crucial hours could mean the difference in stopping the spread of this virus.”

Officials stress that the network will continue to follow strict protocols on which patients will be tested. Patients cannot simply request the test if they believe they have been exposed to the virus or are experiencing respiratory symptoms. Patients should first consult with their primary care physician to determine if they are a candidate for testing.

“Having our own test, which allows us to respond in real time, is the crucial tool we need at the point of care when we need it most,” said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive for Hackensack Meridian Health. Varga was the chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources and oversaw the 2014 massive response in and around Dallas to the Ebola virus outbreak.

A key scientist analyzing and developing the diagnostic is Dr. Yanan Zhao, an assistant member of the CDI who leads research at Perlin’s laboratory. She is an expert in rapid molecular diagnostics for pathogens.

Perlin said the quicker CDI test will allow Hackensack Meridian Health to be a leader of progressive change in preparation for any cluster of cases.

“Speed, with accuracy, is the way we can keep the number of cases down,” Perlin said.