Covid-19 tests halted at ATH lab

Officials say they have insufficient raw materials to continue tests


Zubair Ayub May 31, 2020
A Reuters file image.

ABBOTTABAD: Despite being inaugurated with much fanfare by the provincial government, a lab in Abbottabad which started testing for the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), has stopped working after only a month owing to a shortage of raw materials required to complete the delicate procedure.

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Health Services director-general had on April 21 notified that a newly-established public health laboratory at the Ayub Teaching Hospital (ATH) could perform tests for the Covid-19. Having received polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test machines from the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), the laboratory had been inaugurated by the K-P Chief Minister Mahmood Khan on April 23. It was a key aspect of the province’s efforts to ramp up testing in the province for Covid-19 to help tackle the virus.

Sources said that Covid-19 tests at the public health laboratory have been halted since May 26. They added that while the PDMA had provided the ATH with machines to conduct independent tests for the virus and generate its own lab reports, the authority made no agreement for providing the lab with any other support such as for the repair or maintenance of the machines or a steady supply of consumables required to complete the tests, including kits used in the PCR machines.

The ATH director said that they have requested the provincial health department to provide them with the necessary kits and other raw material at earliest so that they can continue testing for Covid-19.

“No laboratory tests [for Covid-19] have been conducted since May 26 due to the absence of consumables which has created a backlog [for tests],” the source said, adding that they had heard of similar problems cropping up in Swat and Dera Ismail Khan areas of K-P.

The source further said that while they have a manual PCR testing facility - where the staff is exposed when extracting, washing and mixing the virus samples, the automatic PCR tests are safer for those working in the laboratory.

In a completely automatic PCR machine, all these three stages are completed by the machine in a closed chamber, he added. ATH Medical Director Dr Ahsan Aurangezeb confirmed that they do not have an auto-extractor with their PCR machines, hence they have extract samples manually.

Ayub Medical Teaching Institute (AMTI) Pathology Department Head  Professor Dr Naeema Afzal also confirmed that the PCR machines installed in the lab did not have any automatic extraction facility.

In this situation, Dr Afzal explained that they have been following the infection control guidelines prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Moreover, to ensure the safety of everyone who works in the ATH facility, the bare minimum number of people work in the lab while strictly observing proper isolation and quarantine protocols.

However, when contacted, ATH’s media manager said that the machines had stopped working due to a system error. She added that their teams were working on restoring the functionality of these machines and hoped that it will be resolved soon.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2020.

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