A Medical Device Daily

The government approved a new genetic test for the flu virus that will allow labs across the country to identify flu strains within four hours instead of four days.

The test could be crucial if a deadly new strain emerges, federal health officials said. The new test also could help doctors make better treatment decisions during a conventional flu season.

The new test was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta) and Applied Biosystems (Foster City, California).

"We'll now be able to detect influenza in the community faster, which allows us to take steps more quickly to protect and save lives," said CDC Director Julie Gerberding.

Labs must buy Applied Biosystems equipment to run the test, and the CDC will provide the necessary chemicals. About 20 to 30 state labs should be up and running by the end of the year, CDC officials said.

Until now, the tests used by different states varied. "Now we have all the states able to do this rapid method," said Pete Shult, who oversees infectious disease testing at Wisconsin's state laboratory. "It's good to use the same method so the results will translate from state to state, and CDC can better understand what's happening."

The test correctly detected the most common flu viruses about 99% of the time.

Each year, the flu results in 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths, according to official estimates. The elderly, young children and people with chronic illnesses are considered at greatest risk.