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New test will lift capacity to 36,000 a day, says SA lab head

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New test will lift capacity to 36,000 a day, says SA lab head

The WHO says countries doing too few tests are ‘fighting a fire blindfolded’

Senior science reporter
Medical personnel administer a coronavirus test at a drive-through centre in Lake Elsinore, California.
driving test Medical personnel administer a coronavirus test at a drive-through centre in Lake Elsinore, California.
Image: Getty Images/Bob Riha

The lockdown will play a large role in curbing the spread of Covid-19 and reduce demand for testing.

At the same time, new and smaller test kits, with a faster turnaround time, will arrive in SA soon, meaning supply will start to catch up with demand, a factor that has had a positive effect elsewhere.

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
'Blindfolded' World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Image: Reuters

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that countries doing too few tests were “fighting a fire blindfolded”, and the experience of countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Germany has shown that increased testing is key to fighting the virus.

But this doesn’t mean mass testing of asymptomatic people should take place, experts warn. “The lockdown aims to reduce the number of people who get infected, which will mean that fewer people will require testing [than if the infection spread more widely],” said Prof Lynn Morris, of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

SA had conducted 15,000 Covid-19 tests between February 10 and March 24. Germany is testing about half a million people a week. This is what’s kept its death rate so low, according to a virologist who spoke to AFP.

Kamy Chetty, head of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).
Pleased Kamy Chetty, head of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).
Image: Robert Tshabalala

For now, SA has capacity to test 5,000 people weekly. Dr Kamy Chetty, CEO of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), said a smaller and quicker test kit would make it easier to diagnose more people.

“At the end of April, the NHLS will be able to process approximately 36,000 tests in 24 hours,” she said.

The service has six laboratories performing Covid-19-related tests and the number will increase to nine next month when the new test kits arrive. It also has six mobile laboratories to collect samples.

“The advantage, according to the supplier, is that tests can be processed in 45 minutes and the smaller machines can be placed in mobile vehicles, which make them ideal for community testing,” said Chetty.

“It’s a pity that this new test kit was not available sooner, as it would have made a huge difference to how testing gets done. We are nevertheless pleased that it will be ready shortly.”

The new tests use GeneXpert diagnostic machines and won emergency approval last week from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The NHLS has more than 180 GeneXpert machines in all provinces. They are made by California company Cepheid.

Minister of higher education, science and innovation Blade Nzimande said SA was urgently looking at manufacturing its own reagents for testing kits as these were in short supply globally.

Many private laboratories are conducting tests, the price of which was cut to R850 on Friday. Those at public facilities are free. But due to the shortage of reagents, the private labs are using the same criteria as public ones and not simply testing anyone willing to pay.

Testing in the public sector is only done on those who have respiratory symptoms, have been in close contact with a confirmed or suspected case, been travelling or are health-care workers, said Morris.

Members of the National Pathology Organisation (NPO) said in a letter that strict criteria would apply, including a written reference from a doctor.

Members Ampath, Lancet Laboratories and Pathcare said requests for Covid-19 tests were “placing extreme pressure on our laboratories” and “global demands” for testing kits had created bottlenecks as labs struggled to meet demand and secure quick turnaround times.

The reason Germany has so few deaths compared with the number of infected people can be explained by the fact that we carry out an extremely large number of laboratory diagnostic tests.
Christian Drosten

They said all their laboratories had been told to adhere to NICD guidelines and that “testing of asymptomatic people” wasted scarce resources.

They were prioritising in-hospital patients, high-risk groups and index cases in community centres, such as schools and old-age homes.

So far, the maths of increased testing where applicable is proving its worth as a strategy, suggesting that upscaling testing in SA could make a real difference.

Christian Drosten, head of the Institute of Virology at one of Berlin’s biggest hospitals, said: “The reason Germany has so few deaths compared with the number of infected people can be explained by the fact that we carry out an extremely large number of laboratory diagnostic tests.”

Germany has 62,435 cases of the virus, but with 541 deaths it has avoided the mass fatalities seen in Italy and Spain.

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