University of Bristol scientists have had a breakthrough in their strategy to diagnose coronavirus-afflicted patients with four out of five viral symptoms and fewer respiratory symptoms.

The situation is rather different in the US, where an in-patient has been found dead and reports are emerging about a new outbreak of the new coronavirus, in which dozens of the virus-affected patients have died.

Scientists at the university’s early warning system and vaccine laboratory, who followed patients in New York in the course of their experiments and then performed the longest possible coronavirus screening, analysed what was possible and found that the frontline technique required to diagnose victims based on viral symptoms was just 69% accurate.

That is the same rate as other diagnostic techniques, such as observation and laboratory analysis, and predicts only 95% precision. However, the team, led by Professor Tom McWilliam, the director of the vaccine and virology lab, improved this at 68% accuracy and a catch-22 was tested. If possible diagnosis does not involve an illness, it means an E coli infection or other gastrointestinal or respiratory infections could be diagnosed using more acceptable methods.

The team, headed by Professor Roger Wilson, has published its findings in the British medical journal The Lancet, confirming more rapid diagnosis by screening volunteers and patients may significantly improve the public health situation.

“We do believe there are benefits to some type of CVM [guidance laboratory model] test in the short term,” says Professor Wilson. “But the reality is that we are not going to do it as fast as we would want because there will not be enough people available at the moment to do it. We are not planning an entirely new testing facility. We are relying on case case results from our current programmes.”

He hopes that one day they will be able to increase the validity of diagnostic tests by teaching trial participants how to correctly diagnose patients, and, thus, boost the consistency and safety of coronavirus testing. That would reduce the burden on healthcare systems, improve the effectiveness of vaccine testing in individuals and reduce deaths.

The Cambridge study of 200 people between 2009 and 2015 in the US and New York cannot compare with the experimental tests used in the UK. But, as it was particularly large group, Wilson believes that is an important step forward in the development of a system of tests.

The study cites new underlying principles, suggesting that more accurate tests and predictors are essential in diagnosing the disease earlier.

Dr Jundee Petrie, associate director of respiratory collaboration at the Centre for Human Immunology, Research and the Centre for Collaborative Research in Epidemiology and Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, says the research is “very encouraging”. The team hope to do more research and develop ideas to improve methodologies that will allow medical staff to improve the detection of patients’ neurological illness and mild respiratory illness.

The UK case studies the team chose to focus on gave particular attention to microcephaly – a neural disorder with birth defects and unusually small heads. Almost 70 children have died in the UK from microcephaly. Petrie says the subject seems “already to have the potential to improve existing treatments”. She says the ability to effectively diagnose patients could improve treatments for these children and potentially save lives.