April 17, 2003
Singapore, Hong Kong Use Thermal Imaging To Detect SARS

Singapore is installing thermal imagers to detect elevated body temperatures in arriving passengers.

Airline passengers arriving in Singapore from certain Sars-stricken areas are now being scanned for the disease by a military-grade thermal imaging camera, which will detect any increase in temperature, officials said.

8 units are being installed in Changi airport.

One of the units is currently in use and another eight will be installed by the end of the week, Ong told The Associated Press.

People with hot skin will be looked at more closely by health officials.

Those who show up on the camera screen as “hot bodies,” or with a temperature greater than 37.5 C (99.5 F), will be pulled aside to have their temperature taken by a nurse, said government spokeswoman Evelyn Ong.

Singapore will also deploy thermal imagers to its border checkpoints with Malayasia. Other countries are following Singapore's lead as has been the case throughout the SARS crisis. Hong Kong's airport is also being equipped with thermal imaging to scan passengers.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, airports are being equipped with thermal imaging systems that can pinpoint feverish passengers

Thermal imaging is just one of the technologies being deployed in novel ways to fight the spread of SARS. The Ontario Province of Canada may join Singapore in placing electronic tracking bracelets on people exposed to SARS in order to monitor compliance with quarantine restrictions.

Dr. Young acknowledged the province is giving some consideration to putting electronic bracelets on people reluctant to stay in quarantine, as has been done in Singapore. "We're thinking about that and looking at that," he said. "There may be some legal issues involved."

Thermal imaging and electronic quarantine enforcement are just two of the ways that modern technology is changing how disease outbreaks are fought. The potentially most powerful tool in the modern epidemic fighting arsenal is DNA detection technology placed on DNA chips using low cost mass production. There are promising signs on that front.

Artus Biotech has announced a 2 hour SARS detection assay that detects SARS coronavirus DNA.

Based on the discovered genetic sequence, the BNI has established a real-time PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) diagnostic test from which results can be obtained within two hours. From that test, artus developed a ready-to-use system (RealArtTM HPA-Coronavirus RT PCR Reagents) produced under GMP conditions (Good Manufacturing Practice). It will be available from artus and its subsidiaries in the USA and Malaysia from Monday, April 14th, on. Thomas Laue, project manager at artus says: "By providing this assay quickly, we hope to contribute to the standardization of SARS diagnostic worldwide. The early and rapid detection of the virus will be our small share in controlling this epidemic plague." The PCR assay directly detects parts of the new Corona virus in throat swabs, sputum and faecal samples. The RealArtTM HPA-Coronavirus RT PCR Reagents assay delivers results very quickly. The real-time PCR technique improves specificity, allows interpretation of results during the test and provides data about the quantity of the viruses in the sample material. Classical tests like antibody assays in blood allow detection of an infection normally much later, i.e. ten to twenty days after infection. The prompt results of the RealArtTM HPA-Coronavirus RT PCR Reagents assay allows immediate countermeasures by fast diagnosis, e.g. of travellers. By this, the rapid spread of the disease can be prevented.

Hot on the heels of the Artus announcement Singapore's Genome Institute has announced a 3 hour SARS coronavirus detection assay.

The state-run Genome Institute of Singapore said its new test would take three hours and may be sensitive enough to detect the virus in its early stages before a person develops Sars symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough.

How might the SARS outbreak be ended? Picture cheap, fast, and easy-to-use SARS virus detection tests that can detect SARS at a very early stage of infection. Such a test could be employed far more widely than quarantines. Everyone flying from an area where SARS has spread could be tested either before they get on the airplane or shortly after arrival at their destination airport and not released until their test shows a negative result. The same practice could be used at high risk ground border crossings as well. Plus, anyone found by either conventional thermometers or thermal imaging to be running a temperature could be tested and held until the result of the test is known.

If SARS testing could be made incredibly cheap then a more radical approach will become possible: test everyone for SARS. One could just test everyone in countries where SARS is spreading. Or one could, in the extreme, test the whole planet's population. If the testing was done in a relatively short period of time in a geographic area before non-tested people could pass along the virus to tested people then the disease could be eradicated from the human population in the area tested. Then in that area all people who entered could be tested.

Massive testing as a method to control the spread of a disease is easier to do for areas that are geographically isolated. For instance, it would be far easier to do this for Australia or Hawaii than it would be for a country on the Eurasian landmass. It would also be easier to do for areas that, for whatever reason, have little in the way of cross-border traffic.

The speed, cost, and ease of use of a test are not the only elements needed to make massive testing a feasible way to stop a dangerous disease outbreak. Another crucial element is the speed with which the test can be developed in the first place. SARS does not spread as rapidly as influenza and so it has not reached epidemic status in many locations. But the approximately 2 months that it has taken to develop fast tests for SARS (China knew about SARS 5 months ago but kept it secret and so the Western scientists have had only 2 months to identify the cause of the disease and to make tests for it) would be too long of a time for, say, a new and highly deadly influenza strain. However, it seems reasonable to expect that advances in nanopore technology, microfluidics, and other areas of biotechnology and nanotechnology will gradually shrink the amount of time it takes to identify a new pathogen and to sequence it. Once it is sequenced the creation of a new test for it can be done very rapidly.

What we are seeing in the response to the SARS outbreak is the development of elements of the future high tech public health disease fighting arsenal. Automated systems to detect disease and track human movement will only become cheaper and more powerful. Also, many other areas of relevant technology will surely see improvement. The current generation of facial masks will almost certainly be supplanted by greatly improved materials manufactured using nanotechology. The ability to protect a person from exposure will advance in a large variety of other ways including more advanced air filtration systems (again designed using nanotechnology), fancy personal instruments for monitoring individual health, and detection systems for airborne pathogens located in crowded public places. We may some day witness public health officials dispatched rather like police and emergency workers to quarantine an area and its occupants because a detector in some restaurant, airport, or hotel has signalled the presence of a dangerous pathogen.

Ultimately, just as technological advances have accelerated the rate at which diseases can spread other technological advances promise to entirely stop future epidemics at their very start. We may some day live in a future in which natural disease pandemics no longer happen.

You can read more about SARS from a more biological and public health perspective in my FuturePundit Natural Dangers Archive. For economic impacts see the ParaPundit Political Economics Archive. For what the response to SARS says about open versus closed societies see the ParaPundit Open Versus Closed Societies Archive.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 April 17 10:53 AM  Dangers Natural Bio

Bob said at April 17, 2003 4:08 PM:

With these new tests, it might be feasible to test everyone as they get on a plane. By the time the plane lands (or shortly thereafter), the results would be in. If nobody had SARS, let everyone continue about their business.

If anybody had SARS, isolate all the passengers and crew long enough for the disease to advance to detectability. Test everyone again, quarantine the positives and let the negatives go.

Combined with restricting feverish or symptomatic people from boarding in the first place, the technique might be effective without overly burdening passengers.

Mark Mandell said at April 26, 2003 11:09 PM:

Cantronic Systems Inc., a Vancouver Canada based high tech firm, offer a great thermal imaging camera system that can be used for mass screening of SARS. Cantronic has developed special software allowing real time screening and temperature checking of people at airports, railway stations, cruise terminals etc. The system has a temperature alarming setting feature that provides automatic alarming and screening of people with high body temperature. Cantronic has these thermal imaging cameras in stock with pre-arranged export licenses enabling quick delivery of such camera systems to most of countries including China, Maylaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hongkong. Check out on this product at www.cantronic.com or www.infraredmedical.com Contact e-mail: mark@cantronic.com

Britton said at February 23, 2005 7:32 AM:

Sounds like Facism to me

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