Virus or bacteria? Soon a test could tell you


Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu. Image: Shutterstock/Mark Lorch
Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu.

If you have a cough and a runny nose, it’s hard to know whether you’re suffering from a viral or bacterial infection – and that’s important because it determines whether you need to take antibiotics or not.

Now there could be a test that will tell you if your symptoms are caused by a virus or bacteria during a visit to your doctor, thanks to a EUR 1 million prize that is being offered to the inventor who comes up with the best working prototype.

‘Upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold and bronchitis are a major reason for the prescription of antibiotics although these infections are often caused by viruses and in that case antibiotics are not necessary and not effective,’ said Birgit Van Tongelen, an officer at the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation who was involved in developing the idea for the prize.

The overuse of antibiotics is a major problem because it is making them less effective by allowing bacteria to develop resistance to them. It is estimated this causes 25 000 deaths per year and over EUR 1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses in Europe alone.

Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu, according to an EU survey.

‘These infections are often caused by viruses and in that case antibiotics are not necessary and not effective.’

Birgit Van Tongelen, an officer at the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation

The prize, which is being launched on Thursday, aims to help solve that by giving doctors a way to prove to patients that their infection is viral or bacterial, and convince them that antibiotics won’t help in case of viral infections.

The winning test must ideally work in less than 30 minutes, be simple to use and not too intrusive, and a panel of at least seven specialists will chose the winner at the end of next year.

The UK-based Longitude Prize launched an award to develop a rapid test for multiple infections that can provide information on the type of bacteria and level of antimicrobial resistance. The prize will be awarded at the end of 2019.

Garage scientist

Horizon Prizes are challenge-based awards which offer cash to whoever can most effectively meet a defined challenge. They are called inducement prizes because the aim is to stimulate innovation and encourage people to come up with unconventional solutions to problems that matter to European citizens.

The theory behind the prizes is to attract people who might not have applied for a standard research project, which are usually awarded to international research consortiums. ‘The idea is to also attract the scientist in their garage,’ said Van Tongelen. ‘Any individual can apply.’

The antibiotics prize is one of five Horizon Prizes where money is offered to inventors and developers to solve a specific problem.

German SME CureVac beat 12 other contestants to win the first innovation inducement prize in 2014 for its RNActive technology, which could enable vaccines to be made that won’t spoil if they are left out of the fridge.

This Futuris video looks in depth at the CureVac project:

In addition to the antibiotics prize, the five prizes launched this year include EUR 3 million for a materials-based technology to remove pollution from the air and EUR 1 million for a device that can scan food.

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