Structural hurdles blight corona testing

ZIMBABWE has not been able to increase its testing capacity, as the only laboratory currently equipped to run tests for Covid-19 in Harare has structural limitations, it has emerged.

BRIDGET MANANAVIRE

Compounding the matter is the fact that the tests are too expensive to run.The country has conducted not more than 21 tests a day and, as a result, only 410 tests had been done as of Wednesday this week since the outbreak of the disease, a number described by health experts, as very low compared to other countries like neighbouring South Africa which, by the same day, had conducted 63 776 tests.

Furthermore, an update on the death of the country’s 11th confirmed case in Bulawayo this week also exposed the country’s limitations in terms of testing and transportation of the specimen to the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory (NMRL) in Harare, as results were received only five days after the swabs were collected.

The country recorded two Covid-19 deaths this week, bringing the fatalities to three out of 11 confirmed cases. Health experts have raised concern over the low rate of testing, saying Zimbabwe could be missing a lot of cases, increasing the risk of the disease spreading.

Director of epidemiology and disease control in the Health ministry, Portia Manangazira, said the authorities were working on decentralising the testing facility, as current settings at the NMRL do not allow for expansion of the testing capacity.

“We do not run tests one-by-one, it is expensive and so we have to conduct a specific number at a time. And this will also limit the laboratorians’ exposure to biomaterial, because we also need to protect the workers,” she said.

“So that has been limiting us. And if you look at the set up of the lab, the testing starts on the third floor, where there is a fume cardboard, and then they are moved to the first floor, where there is maximum bio security, and then to the second floor for another process. It is not like everything is done in one place.”

“We also do not have enough people in the lab, we have never had enough, there are people who left the country, and there are those who left their posts. At least now Treasury has opened some posts and we are now in the process of recruiting the people,” she added.

Manangazira said there has to be a certain biosafety level at the laboratory and not all labs are equipped to run the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests.
“We are currently looking at ways to decentralise the testing and look at the laboratory we use to conduct HIV and TB tests so that we can have tests at subnational level,” she said.

“The National University of Science and Technology has offered their PCR machine and that will be placed at the TB reference lab in Bulawayo so that the southern parts of the country can be covered. There are also two offers from the private sector and Chinhoyi University as well.”

The epidemiology expert said the rapid kits that could speed up the testing have not yet been validated. The authorities are still waiting for the delivery of the rapid test kits.

“There are people who are purporting to be selling rapid tests kits, but nothing has been approved yet from that end and they might give misleading results. The rapid tests are yet to be validated,” Manangazira said.

She emphasised that the laboratory was short-staffed, worsening the limitations experienced in testing.

According to a document that was leaked on social media, as of April 4, Zimbabwe had only 500 test kits available for use and these were donated by the World Health Organisation, while the 20 000 donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba Foundation were not usable, as they had missing reagents.

The business sector and donor community in the country have been making frantic efforts to acquire more lab kits to increase Zimbabwe’s testing rate.