Culture. Until the 1980s, except in a relatively few cases the only available laboratory methods were culture and serologic tests for antibodies. There have been significant advances in culture techniques in the past few years, but most virus culture still is difficult and expensive. Culture is performed using living cell preparations or in living tissues. This fact in itself rules out mass production testing. Partly for this reason, facilities for culture are limited and are available mainly at sizable medical centers, regional reference laboratories, or large public health laboratories. In addition, culture and identification of the virus takes several days. Finally, cultural isolation of certain viruses does not absolutely prove that the virus is causing actual patient disease, since many viruses are quite prevalent in the general clinically healthy population. In these instances, confirmation of recent infection is helpful, such as presence of IgM antibodies or a fourfold rising titer of antibodies.

Antigen detection. In the 1980s, several other diagnostic techniques that can detect viral antigen have appeared. These include electron microscopy, fluorescent antibody (FA or IFA) methods, enzymelinked immunoassay (ELISA), latex agglutination (LA) methods, and, even more recently, nucleic acid (DNA) probes (Chapter 14). These methods can provide same-day results. However, many of them are relatively expensive, especially the DNA probes, particularly when only one patient specimen is tested at a time. Except in large-volume reference laboratories, most institutions do not receive a large number of orders for virus tests in general; and with the possible exception of rubella, hepatitis B virus (HBV), human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and possibly rotavirus, laboratories usually receive very few requests for diagnosis of any one particular virus. This makes it difficult for the average laboratory to keep reagents for testing many different viruses; and without having the advantage of testing many specimens at the same time, costs (and therefore, prices) are much higher.

Antibody detection. In addition to culture and tests for viral antigen, serologic tests for antibody are available for most viruses. There are many techniques, including complement fixation (CF), hemagglutination (HA or HAI), radioimmunoassay (RIA), ELISA, FA, and LA. Some of these methods can be adapted to detect either antigen or antibody and either IgM or IgG antibody. Although they are considerably less exacting than culture, most techniques other than LA and ELISA monoclonal spot test modifications are still somewhat tedious and time-consuming. Therefore, these tests are not immediately available except at reference laboratories. Serologic tests have the additional disadvantage that antibodies usually take 1-2 weeks to develop after onset of illness, and unless a significantly (fourfold or two-tube) rising titer is demonstrated, they do not differentiate past from recent infection by the viral agent in question. One serum specimen is obtained as early in the disease as possible (“acute” stage) and a second sample is obtained 2-3 weeks later (“convalescent” stage). Blood should be collected in sterile tubes or Vacutainer tubes and serum processed aseptically to avoid bacterial contamination. Hemolyzed serum is not acceptable. To help prevent hemolysis, serum should be separated from blood clot as soon as possible. The serum should be frozen as soon as possible after collection to minimize bacterial growth and sent still frozen (packed in dry ice) to the virus laboratory. Here a variety of serologic tests can be done to demonstrate specific antibodies to the various organisms. A fourfold rise in titer from acute to convalescent stage of the disease is considered diagnostic. If only a single specimen is taken, an elevated titer could be due to previous infection rather than to currently active disease. A single negative test result is likewise difficult to interpret, since the specimen might have been obtained too early (before antibody rise occurred) or in the case of short-lived antibodies such as IgM, a previously elevated antibody value may have decreased to nondetectable levels.

There is one notable exception to the rule of acute and convalescent serologic specimens. In some circumstances, it is desirable to learn whether a person has an antibody titer to a particular virus that is sufficient to prevent onset of the disease. This is especially true for a woman in early pregnancy who might be exposed to rubella. A single significant antibody titer to rubella suggests immunity to the virus.

Two types of antibodies are produced in most, but not all, bacterial or viral infections. A macroglobulin (IgM) type appears first, usually shortly before or just after onset of clinical illness; reaches a peak titer about 1-2 weeks after clinical symptoms begin; and then falls to normal levels within a few weeks (usually in less than 6 months). A gamma-globulin (IgG) type appears 1 or more weeks after detection of IgM antibody. The IgG antibody reaches a peak 1-3 weeks (sometimes longer) after the peak of the IgM antibody. The IgG antibody typically persists much longer than the IgM antibody (several years or even for life). Therefore, presence of the IgM antibody usually indicates recent acute infection. Presence of the IgG antibody usually requires that a rising titer be obtained to diagnose acute infection (although in some diseases there are circumstances that alter this requirement), since without a rising titer one does not know whether the IgG antibody elevation is due to recent or to old infection.

Special stains. The Tzanck test is sometimes requested in certain skin diseases associated with vesicles or bullae. One of the vesicles is carefully unroofed, and the base and undersurface of the vesicle membrane is scraped; the scrapings are gently smeared on glass slides. The smear can be stained with Wright’s stain or Giemsa stain; if so, the slide can either be methanol-fixed or air-dried. Papanicolaou (Pap) stain can also be used, in which case the slide must be immediately fixed in a cytology fixative. The slide is then examined microscopically for multinucleated giant cells or characteristic large abnormal rounded epithelial cells. If found, these are suggestive of herpes simplex or varicella-zoster infection.

Viral test specimens

The type of specimen needed for viral culture depends on the type of illness. In aseptic meningitis, a CSF specimen should be obtained. In addition, stool culture for virus should be done, since enteroviruses are frequent causes of meningitis. In enterovirus meningitis, stool culture is 2-3 times more effective than CSF culture.

In any kind of meningitis with negative spinal fluid cultures or severe respiratory tract infection of unknown etiology it is a good idea to freeze a specimen of serum as early in the disease as possible. Later on, if desired, another specimen can be drawn and the two sent for virus studies. As noted, serum specimens are generally drawn 2 weeks apart.

In suspected cases of (nonbacterial) encephalitis, whole blood should be collected for virus culture during the first 2 days of illness. During this short time there is a chance of demonstrating arbovirus viremia. This procedure is not useful in aseptic meningitis. Spinal fluid should also be sent for virus culture. Although the yield is relatively small in arbovirus infections, the specimen results sometimes are positive, and culture also helps to rule out other organisms, such as enterovirus. In upper respiratory tract illness, throat or nasopharyngeal swabs are preferred. These should be placed in trypticase broth (standard bacterial medium). Swabs not preserved in some type of medium such as trypticase or Hank’s solution are usually not satisfactory, since they dry out quickly, and most viruses are killed by drying. Throat washings or gargle material can be used but are difficult to obtain properly. In viral pneumonia, sputum or throat swabs are needed. If throat swabs are used, they should be placed in acceptable transport solutions. Whether throat swab or sputum is used, the specimen must be frozen immediately and sent to the virus laboratory packed in dry ice. In addition, a sputum specimen (or throat swab) should be obtained for Mycoplasma culture (Chapter 14).

In possible viral gastroenteritis, the most logical specimen is stool. At present, rotavirus and Norwalk viruses cannot be cultured from stool, but stool can be examined for Norwalk virus by immune electron microscopy and for rotavirus antigen by RIA, ELISA, or slide LA. Serologic tests on serum can be used for diagnosis of rotavirus infection, but only a few laboratories are able to do this. Whenever a stool culture for virus is needed, actual stool specimens are preferred to rectal swabs, since there is a better chance of isolating an organism from the larger sample. Stool samples should be collected as soon as possible—according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), no later than 48 hours after onset of symptoms (to ensure the best chance of success). The stool specimen should be refrigerated, not frozen; and if sent to an outside laboratory, the specimen should be shipped the day of collection (if possible), and kept cool with dry ice. However, it is better to mail any virus specimens early in the week to avoid arrival on weekends. An insulated container helps prolong effects of the dry ice.

An adequate clinical history with pertinent physical and laboratory findings should accompany any virus specimen, whether for culture or serologic studies. As a minimum, the date of clinical illness onset, collection date of each specimen, and clinical diagnosis must be included. The most likely organism should be indicated. This information helps the virus laboratory to decide what initial procedures to use. For example, some tissue culture cell types are better adapted than others for certain viruses. Considerable time and effort can be saved and a meaningful interpretation of results can be provided.

Certain viruses deserve individual discussion. The method of diagnosis or type of specimen required for some of these organisms is different from the usual procedure, whereas in other cases it is desirable to emphasize certain aspects of the clinical illness that suggest the diagnosis.