The National Health Laboratory Serivce. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND
The National Health Laboratory Serivce. Picture: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) is rapidly expanding its testing capabilities for Covid-19 and will be able to process 36,000 samples a day by the end of April, it said on Wednesday.

The government laboratory service can currently do up to 5,000 tests a day. Testing is an essential part of the government’s strategy for tackling SA’s Covid-19 outbreak, which has soared to 709 cases in less than three weeks. It is vital for confirming the respiratory disease in patients who are showing symptoms, determining when they are no longer contagious, and for identifying asymptomatic contacts.

NHLS CEO Kamy Chetty said the organisation had sufficient equipment to meet current demand and had received undertakings from suppliers of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits that SA would be a priority. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the NHLS, had done 19,975 tests by Wednesday afternoon, according to spokesperson Sinenhlanhla Jimoh.

The NHLS would increase the number of laboratories performing Covid-19 tests from six to nine, and the number of mobile testing sites would increase from four to 20 by the end of April, said Chetty.

The NHLS has 18 Cobas 6,800 and 8,800 machines, and more than 180 GeneXpert analysers, which were originally procured for testing for tuberculosis. She previously told Business Day that the NHLS would use spare capacity on these machines, and not disrupt current TB testing. The test kit for the GeneXpert was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration last week, and test kits are due to arrive in SA in April, she said.

“The advantage, according to the supplier, is that tests can be processed in 45 minutes, and the smaller machines can be placed in mobile vehicles, which makes it ideal for community testing,” said Chetty.

The six laboratories that are conducting tests are the NICD and Charlotte Maxeke academic hospital in Gauteng; Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals in the Western Cape; Inkosi Albert Luthuli central hospital in KwaZulu-Natal; and Universitas hospital in the Free State. Tshwane academic hospital in Gauteng, Port Elizabeth provincial and Nelson Mandela academic hospitals in East Cape will start testing shortly, she said.

Mobile laboratories are being used in Western Cape, Free State, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

In a separate development, minister of trade, industry & competition Ebrahim Patel said local manufacturing companies were repurposing technology to provide locally made basic products to avoid shortages of imported equipment.

“For example, local companies are developing an easy-to-use mechanical ventilator for hospitals. It will be going into production shortly and we expect to have hundreds of these available within weeks,” he said. za

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