Crisis as testing kits run out, backlog of samples piles up

Friday, June 12th, 2020 00:00 |
Laboratory technicians at Kemri headquarters in Nairobi. Photo/PD/ALEX MBURU

George Kebaso @Morarak

Kenya now faces a crisis in its handling  of coronavirus owing to a shortage of the automated testing kits.

It has emerged that the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) has a backlog of more than 10,000 samples collected for testing. 

People Daily exclusively established  that government-testing facilities are only applied on patients showing the virus symptoms even as it emerged that the shortage is caused by a global crisis.

A source at the country’s premier medical research institute confided that for slightly more than a week, a substantial number of samples collected for testing had been piling, and can only be subjected to manual testing.

Manual System

“In the last one and half weeks we have been forced to rely on the manual system of testing samples.

This will continue until we receive the next batch of automated testing kits. But this means that if a person has a sample to be tested today, it will only add to the backlog that we are already experiencing,” said a source at Kemri who asked not be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter and strict Ministry of Health of information sharing protocols.

Starkly, the source trashed the numbers being announced by Afya House as having been tested in the last 24 hours saying there is no such a thing since last Friday.

“No testing going on in the last 24 hours present can be announced as substantial according to the daily updates,” the source stated.

The ministry yesterday announced that the country had recorded 105 positive cases of Covid-19 tested between Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon.

With the manual system of testing, Kemri only does between 600 and 700 samples per day compared to 3000 and 5000 samples cleared when the institution has sufficient re-agents or automated test kits.

“The re-agents and testing kits were being used in the five Cobas machines that Kemri was using in the testing of HIV, Tuberclosis and Malaria viruses, but which had been improvised to test the Covid-19 since its advent in the country.

Now without the re-agents and testing kits, the machines cannot function,” the source added.

However, yesterday Prof. Matilu Mwau, Kemri deputy director, acknowledged there is a backlog but said 180,000 automated test kits for the Abbot machines were expected to arrive in the country last evening.

He expressed hope that the backlog would be cleared by Wednesday next week. There are 23 Abbot Machines in government facilities spread across the country, he revealed.

“We have already started working on the backlog using the manual system of testing. Since Tuesday, we have been able to eat into the backlog with 3,000 samples cleared.

If everything goes as per the plan, the backlog will be diminished by Wednesday next week,” Mwau said. 

There are slightly over two dozens of staff working under him.

However, until the automated test kits are in the country, it means that staff working at the numerous eateries in the country, cannot get certificates to be able to go back to their workplaces.

In April 26, the government instructed that for eateries to be able to operate, workers must obtain certificates showing their Covid-19 status.

“All workers in the eateries must be tested for Covid-19 and found to be negative to reduce risk of waiters spreading the disease,” Health CS Mutahi Kagwe said.

However, People Daily has learnt that as government facilities focus on testing only symptomatic persons presenting with Covid-19 symptoms those who are eager to get tested quickly are seeking for services in private facilities, which are expensive.

“These poor people have no choice but to seek very expensive sources of testing,” the source said.

The People Daily has further established that all the private facilities are charging between Sh10, 000 to Sh13, 000 per test.

At the Lancet Laboratories and Aga Khan University Hospital, some of the people who have sought their services, are paying Sh10, 800; while the high end Nairobi Hospital and MP Shah are charging Sh10, 000. The prestigious Karen Hospital is charging Sh13, 000.

Microbiology volunteers

It has also been established that already health facilities such as the Lady Northey Dental Clinic, Mbagathi Hospital and Kenya University Teaching and Referral Hospital are turning away those volunteering to be screened.

With this revelation, now Kemri is planning to hire 100 microbiology volunteers to help in speeding up the testing, whereas, the mass testing of people in the estates that had gathered momentum has also been scaled down due to this shortage.

“This is going to impact negatively on the whole thing,” a senior doctor at Kenya National Hospital (KNH) added even as Afya House is demanding that Kemri release results on a daily basis.

However, according to Prof Omu Anzala who is leading a group of some Covid-19 researchers from University of Nairobi, the crisis is not anything to cause panic in the country as it is of global nature.

“Shortage of testing commodities is a global crisis which is not permanent. I am aware that some of the testing kits have arrived in the country, but that will be announced by the CS Health,” he said when reached for comment.

He said with sufficient commodities in the country, the I-throughput machines that are available could test up to 8,000 samples or even more.

Kenya is among African countries that are finding themselves at the end of a long global queue for the chemical reagents and other commodities necessary for administering diagnostic tests.

Most of these testing kits are coming from countries that have a huge demand, and have to satisfy their own needs first before releasing the surplus.

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