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CNN Saturday Morning News

Interview With Norman Proulx

Aired October 27, 2001 - 08:06   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Among the first signs of an anthrax attack are symptoms resembling those of the flu and the CEO of one biotech company says that spreading a strain of influenza not covered by the flu vaccine could be as dangerous as an anthrax or smallpox attack.

Norman Proulx of Zymetx, Incorporated joins us now from Philadelphia. Good morning, sir. Thank you for being with us this morning.

NORMAN PROULX, PRESIDENT & CEO, ZYMETX, INC.: Thank you for having me.

SAVIDGE: Tell us a bit about what your company does, how you fit into this equation.

PROULX: Well, we have two assets that we believe can provide peace of mind first and foremost. The first asset is the Z-stat flu 20 minute flu test. It was FDA approved in October of '97. It received what is called CLIA waiver in December last year. What's important there is it means that the test can be done anywhere. It doesn't necessarily just have to be done in a lab or what have you.

It's very, very specific so if you take this test with a simple throat swab, 20 minutes later you know whether you have the flu or not. And in a normal year without all of this bioterrorism activity going on, you'll find that about 40 percent of the people who have the flu -- 40 percent of the people who have flu-like symptoms have the flu, 20 percent have a strep throat and the other 40 have a common cold or some other form of virus.

SAVIDGE: So is the idea to sort of weed people out here, to make sure, all right, they have the flu and not be concerned they have anthrax?

PROULX: Yes, I think that's certainly one of the best parts of having a legitimate rapid flu diagnostic test such as the Z-stat flu. We, "USA Today" wrote an article earlier this week that said parents are inundating doctors' offices because they really want to rule in the flu, which is kind of different than it has been in the past.

Now, we've also developed, using our test, since it only takes about two minutes of tech time, we've developed a way to create an influenza disease management in an E.R. or in a doctor's office so that you separate the really true emergency room needs from people who are coming in wanting to know whether they have the flu or not.

SAVIDGE: So this is so the system wouldn't be overwhelmed, in other words?

PROULX: That is correct. Now, we have a second asset called the National Flu Surveillance Network, which is absolutely the largest flu surveillance network in the country. It's got about 1,150 sites. It has 6,300 doctors reporting in. We are in 50 states, 1,100 cities and most importantly, we drill down to zip codes in the top 30 markets in the United States.

That gives us two advantages. One is a predictive capability. We can alert the emergency rooms, we can alert the state health departments and do alert the state health departments as to first sightings.

For example, we had an epidemiologist from New York City call us yesterday saying gee, you've reported 15 cases of the flu in New York City. We haven't seen any. Well, it turns out that they use a typical culture situation where the doctor looks at the patient, deems that he or she believes the patient has the flu, and then they go into a culture mode, which takes three to 10 days or so.

In our case, we actually have doctors in and around the city of New York who treat every upper respiratory infection with an immediate flu test. And so in 20 minutes, we're accumulating data.

SAVIDGE: And is that data available now to the medical community?

PROULX: It is absolutely available to the medical community. It's is the site itself and what we have is our doctors reporting in on a twice weekly basis how many tests I've given, how many positives I've given. And you can calculate through a mathematical formula when you start seeing the first and then subsequent positives when you're going to have a flu level.

But it also has another benefit, if you will, in this particular environment. About 40 percent of all the people who come in have the flu, as I mentioned before. Well, if we had, for example, every emergency room in New York City giving our test immediately for everybody who came in complaining of flu-like symptoms, they would feed the information, let's say even every two hours. We would accumulate it and then feed it back on a 24-7 basis, looking for aberrant diagnostic potential.

So if instead of seeing 40 percent flu you saw 10 percent flu, I'm not suggesting that that would mean anthrax. I'm suggesting that it would, you would have to look very, very carefully at why the laws of statistics are being violated in that particular case.

SAVIDGE: I know you're not a doctor, but do you recommend, as others have, that everyone try to get a flu shot?

PROULX: Absolutely. Last year and again this year, unfortunately, there's going to be capacity limitations on the flu shot. Also, if you are elderly or immunocompromised, the flu shot, while, again, it's still very good, doesn't, isn't necessarily a panacea unto itself. Even with people who take the flu shot, they could still get the flu. And honestly, everybody should be vaccinated but let's face it, what's going to happen now is anybody with any flu- like symptoms is really going to want to get checked out and definitively diagnosed as the flu, because if you didn't have the flu, the next step would likely be to take a simple strep test, which only takes a few moments.

Now you've ruled out or in 60 percent of normal. Now if you're, if you have a negative on both of those, you really would want to think about or the medical community would really want to start thinking about what's going on here. Let's make absolutely sure that there isn't some kind of aberrant diagnosing pattern that's developed.

SAVIDGE: Norman Proulx, he is CEO of Zymetx, Incorporated. Thank you very much for joining us from Philadelphia this morning.

PROULX: Thank you very much for having me.