Wits leads fight for effective Covid-19 test, but it needs help

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Wits leads fight for effective Covid-19 test, but it needs help

If you are a survivor of the virus, your blood and saliva are vital in helping save the lives of thousands

Senior reporter
Wits School of Immunology has launched a volunteer programme to source blood and saliva samples from Covid-19 positive people. They will be used to evaluate the accuracy of rapid-testing systems.
HAND IT OVER Wits School of Immunology has launched a volunteer programme to source blood and saliva samples from Covid-19 positive people. They will be used to evaluate the accuracy of rapid-testing systems.
Image: 123rf

Covid-19 positive?  Wits University in Johannesburg want you, your blood and your saliva!

Well, at least specialists at the university’s School of Immunology do.

The university, working with the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) and National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), has launched a nationwide Covid-19 testing-accuracy programme.

It is designed to evaluate the accuracy of rapid-coronavirus-testing systems, which could boost government’s fight against the virus.

Crucial to the programme is the creation of a bank of samples from 300 people infected with Covid-19.

The school has launched a nationwide call for Covid-19-positive people to voluntarily supply it with blood and saliva samples.

Wits School of Immunology head Prof Elizabeth Mayne.
Testing, Testing Wits School of Immunology head Prof Elizabeth Mayne.
Image: Wits.ac.za

School head Prof Elizabeth Mayne said since their call for volunteers was made two weeks ago they had received samples from more than 30 people, with the numbers rising.

She said those volunteering were mainly young people, who had travelled back to SA before lockdown, with the gender split almost equal.

“Though there are rapid-diagnostic tests available that could test for antibodies in the blood and deliver a result within minutes, these tests have not performed consistently well.

“There have been worldwide issues with various rapid-test applications, with lots of people in the past not having tested positive, even though they have been positive.”

She puts the failure of systems to detect if patients were positive down to several factors, including the time it takes for people’s bodies to produce antibodies.

Mayne said more than 100 rapid-testing applications existed globally.

“The sample materials will be used to evaluate the accuracy of the rapid-testing applications, which could potentially be brought into the country.”

It is difficult to get access to all available testing systems.
Elizabeth Mayne

She said SA was operating in a global market, with an increasingly high demand for test applications, especially from countries such as the UK, which were conducting more than 100,000  Covid-19 tests daily.

“It is difficult to get access to all available testing systems. There are certain testing applications which work really well, which countries such as the US are keeping for themselves.

“We therefore have to use the testing systems which we can access, but before we start using these systems we need to be 100% sure of their accuracy. This is why it is crucial we have samples from positive people.”

Mayne said they had established sample collection sites in the Western Cape and Gauteng, with plans to collect samples from other provinces.

She said the samples were collected by nurses who travelled to volunteers’ homes.

Asked if they had had any results yet, Mayne said it was still too early.

“The process is quite intricate and very much dependent on the volunteers we receive. As samples come in we start to validate the tests.

“We are also working with the NICD and NHLS, and might use some of their resources to collect samples.”

Although a number of rapid-diagnosis tests are already available in SA, they are not consistently reliable.
Elizabeth Mayne

She said some of the rapid tests they were evaluating took about 10 minutes.

SA urgently needed to increase testing for Covid-19 so infection could be identified, traced, isolated and contained, said Mayne.

“Although a number of rapid-diagnosis tests are available in SA, they are not consistently reliable. Inaccurate test results could lead people to believe they do not have the coronavirus, so they don’t self-isolate and then inadvertently infect others.”

Anyone wishing to participate in the programme can e-mail Elizabeth.mayne@nhls.ac.za.