By Moses Emorinken, Abuja
Experts in the health sector have described the move by the federal government to convert the over 300 GeneXpert machines, hitherto, used for the diagnosis of Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, for coronavirus (COVID-19) testing, as a game-changer.
The WHO has always emphasized the critically important role ‘testing’ plays in curbing the rampaging spread of the pandemic coronavirus (COVID-19).
Speaking with the Nation, the National Professional Officer-in-Charge of Tuberculosis at the WHO, Dr. Ayodele Awe, said: “For us, this will be a good collaboration between a disease entity that is pandemic and the other (Tuberculosis), that already has a diagnostic tool.
“There are 398 machines in the country that are procured by partners – WHO, USAID, Global Funds, and are spread all over 774 local governments. They are the source for diagnosing tuberculosis.
“Currently, there are a lot of challenges with testing for COVID-19, as many persons have complained of not being able to access testing. Therefore, for effective monitoring of COVID-19, there is need to decentralized and expand testing services. That is when we will know the impact of the COVID-19 at the community and state level.
“So, this is good news for Nigerians because if the GeneXperts are integrated into the testing chain, people can invariably have access to the 398 diagnostic centres with the machines for testing.
“This will rapidly increase our diagnosis and ensure that every person that has the disease is detected before the spread. For us, we are eagerly ready to collaborate with the COVID-19 team to use these machines”.
Also, in a phone interview, the Executive Director of KNCV Nigeria, Dr. Bethrend Odume, explained that the GeneXpert machine, manufactured by Cepheid in the United States, uses different cartridges to test a variety of diseases.
“We can use the machine to test for Tuberculosis with a different cartridge, and can even use it to test for human papilloma virus with a different cartridge or even viral load for HIV. Now they have discovered another cartridge they call Xpress SARS-CoV-2, that can be used to test for coronavirus.
“Presently in Nigeria, the testing capacity is low, access to testing is low and many people want to test and are really on the queue. But the ground breaker in the whole arrangement is the discovery by the Cepheid team – that you can use that cartridge on any GeneXpert platform and you will be able to get a result in 45 minutes.
“The good thing is that there are 10 DR TB labs in the country that have this capacity and all have GeneXpert machines that can be targeted first”.
He added: “On the issue of human resources, they need to be trained on the precautionary measures. They also need to be supported with adequate electricity or alternative power source because some of these GeneXpert machines are not being optimized because of power.
“When you run the GeneXpert machine, it is expected to work within a given ambience temperature, and when there is no AC, they keep on breaking down. If these requirements are in place, I think the facilities will be in the best position to support the epidemic response.
“For now, I know that there are many channels of making orders to Cepheid, but our office is already working with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and we have placed orders for 5,000 cartridges”.
For the Registrar/Secretary General, West African Postgraduate College of Medical Laboratory Science (WAPCMLS), Abuja, Dr. Godswill Okara, “It is a step in the right direction and that is the way to go. We have said now and again, that’s while we commend the Federal Ministry of Health, the NCDC, and the Presidential Task Force, for the good job they are doing in updating the public and giving out appropriate information and guidelines, the right thing to do is to take further steps to increase the testing methodologies and testing centres.
“The centrality of laboratory testing in the containment efforts of the outbreak is very obvious because the World Health Organization (WHO) made it clear, when its Director-General said ‘our simple message to all countries is test test test’.
“More so, the continuous information has tended to produce fear and panic among the populace. So, the only way to also allay that fear is to ensure that access to testing is decentralized and people are able to get tested in order to have their minds at rest.
“Increasing the testing will ensure that those that need attention, and those that are infected can be identified, isolated and treated. That way, the outbreak can be contained. There is evidence in South Korea increasing testing platforms, also in Singapore, South Africa and a few other countries”.
In his remarks at the Presidential Task Force briefing on COVID-19 in Abuja, the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, said that till date, about 4,000 persons have been tested, while about 6,701 contacts are being traced.
“We have some exciting proposals that we are working through with the private sector. The private sector has really come on board to support us in doing this not just the private sector, some other public-sector organizations that have private sector affiliations.
“The Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority is also working with us on a very interesting proposal to increase laboratory testing capacity in three locations in Nigeria.
“The other thing is that we working with both the TB and HIV program to convert some of the technologies that they are using for TB and HIV for testing for COVID-19. This too is a conventional process but it is not that simple, but all of them are on the way”.
“Currently, we have added one more lab this morning over the last few days, so we have eight (8). The reason is that now three labs will be working independently in Lagos. Now, the Bio-Security Centre in Lagos that used to work with LUTH in collaboration, has now completely separated. So, we have now three (3) labs working independently in Lagos. We now have a total of eight.
“Today, we are activating a second lab in Abuja – the Defense Reference lab to support not only the Armed Forces, but everyone around that area – their families and everyone else. We will work with them to scale up that testing.
“The next town that will be going to will be Kano, so between Sunday and Monday, we hope to activate Kano, and from their start a series of labs in the northern part of Nigeria to make sure everyone has access to the lab closest to his or her location.”