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Gloved hand holds four tubes with blood sample positive for sexually transmitted diseases: HIV, HBV, HCV, Syphilis
Asymptomatic genetic testing can play a crucial role in identifying sexually transmitted infections early and making sure the patients are not unknowingly spreading the infections.
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How Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the Spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections?

Molecular diagnostics may help control the spread and rate of STIs

Photo portrait of Manoj Gandhi
Manoj Gandhi, MD, PhD

Manoj Gandhi, MD, PhD, is the senior medical director for the genetic testing solutions business at Thermo Fisher Scientific, and is part of the team that provides medical strategy, medical and scientific oversight for product development, on-market product support, and customer engagement.

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Published:May 29, 2023
|2 min read
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Photo portrait of Manoj Gandhi
Manoj Gandhi, MD, PhD, senior medical director of genetic testing services, Thermo Fisher Scientific, has been working to advance the quality of medical care globally.

Q: What impact has the past few years of the pandemic had on the rate and spread of STIs?

A: According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after an illusory dip at the beginning of the pandemic due to underreporting, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have strongly surpassed the rates of previous years. While the focus was rightfully so on addressing COVID-19, by the end of 2020, the spread of STIs had worsened. Over the years, the infection rate has only gone up, indicating that STIs could grow into a public health crisis.

Q: What role does testing play in curbing the spread of STIs? 

A: Testing is a critical first step in managing the spread of STIs. Patients who present symptoms or think they are at risk or have come in contact with an individual who has been exposed or infected should get tested. Once informed of their infection status, these patients can decide to move forward safely—whether that is receiving proper treatment or making sure they are not spreading the infection to others. Having more information is beneficial in this instance, and testing can provide exactly that.

Q: What is an overlooked area of STI testing that could help further manage infections?

A: There are millions of reported cases of STIs—human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes simplex virus (HSV), chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis—in the US and around the world. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these numbers represent only a subset, with many more asymptomatic cases being unaccounted for. Asymptomatic testing or testing those at risk of exposure is often overlooked. Asymptomatic testing can play a big role in identifying infections early and making sure these patients are not unknowingly spreading the infections.

Q: What else can labs be doing to help address the issue? 

A: Conventionally, STI testing is done when the patient visits their health care practitioner (HCP). Today, there are options where a patient can self-collect their samples in the privacy and convenience of their homes and ship them to a lab to be tested. This provides a good alternative for patients who are reluctant or unable to visit their HCP for testing. Labs can do their part by preparing workflows to accommodate at-home sample collection, in addition to the conventional HCP-collected samples, to provide accurate and faster results.

The adoption of molecular diagnostics, such as PCR, has increased considerably over the past few years, especially for infectious diseases. Now that labs are not completely consumed with COVID-19 testing, they can allocate high-quality testing infrastructure and tools acquired during the pandemic to STI testing.

Q: How has molecular diagnostic technology helped improve the capabilities of STI testing? 

A: Molecular diagnostics has made testing for STIs faster and more accurate than traditional culture-based methods. Molecular diagnostic technologies can also help differentiate between diseases with overlapping symptoms (or different STIs) in a single sample. The pandemic has led to the global adoption of molecular diagnostics, creating an opportunity to provide better outcomes for individuals with STIs and infectious diseases.