Two new facilities have been set up in Kenya to test for the novel coronavirus. Up to yesterday, all samples taken from individuals suspected to have the virus were sent to South Africa.
Laboratories under the National Influenza Centre, hosted at the National Public Health Laboratories and Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), will begin testing samples immediately, acting Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth said on Tuesday.
“We received the kits on Sunday and we will now be able to test for the new coronavirus,” Dr Amoth told the Nation.
Equipping the laboratories also means that the country will not have to ship out samples for confirmation as the two labs can compare their results, Dr Amoth said.
The country was previously unable to confirm whether any of the seven people suspected to have the virus were infected as laboratories lacked the necessary “reagent kits”.
With more than 1,000 people already dead, the outbreak shows no sign of ending soon. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the virus outbreak a global emergency as health experts fight to contain it.
As a result, there has been a rush to establish diagnostic capabilities in different countries, particularly in developing countries.
Testing for a novel pathogen is a complex affair, Lancet Group of Laboratories chief consultant pathologist Ahmed Kalebi said. Test kits have to be newly developed and confirmed to be working.
SOPHISTICATED MOLECULAR TEST
Confirmatory testing for such new viruses requires a sophisticated molecular test called PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which identifies the virus in a sample using specific ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequence referred to as probes, that are an exact match to the virus, Dr Kalebi explained further.
He added: “Setting up the laboratories to test was not a difficult process since local research laboratories already have the equipment to run molecular assays — used to analyse genetic material — what has been missing are the key probes and reagents”.
With these now available, he said, testing will only take 24 hours.
A week ago, only two laboratories in Africa (South Africa and Senegal) could diagnose the virus. As of Sunday, WHO expected every African country to be able to diagnose the virus.
So far, seven people in Mombasa and Nairobi counties have been tested for coronavirus (COVID-19) with all confirmed to be uninfected. While the Health ministry is following up some suspected cases in Kitui and Kiambu counties, Dr Amoth said there were no new suspected cases.
“Without vital diagnostic capacity, countries are in the dark as to how far and wide the virus has spread, and who has coronavirus or another disease with similar symptoms,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.
Researchers are at the same time working to develop antibody tests that can tell whether someone has been exposed to the virus. This could help shed light on how broadly the virus has spread, and whether there are milder cases not being detected, Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergency programme, told reporters.
WHO has activated a network of 15 referral labs to support national efforts.
It has also identified 168 other labs globally with the technology to diagnose the virus. Technicians have also been trained to run the tests locally to avoid delays occasioned by sending samples to centralised labs.