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What's holding up accreditation of private labs for COVID-19 testing?

Friday, October 16, 2020

In the best of circumstances the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) is having a rough time coping with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and particularly the volume of testing for the disease as community transmission overwhelms us.

We therefore find it hard to understand reports that private laboratories, at least some of them, have still not been accredited to carry out testing for SARS-CoV-2, as it is called.

In the beginning, understandably, the Government had to be extremely cautious to ensure that the tests were reliable and met international standards approved by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

The first internationally approved test was the PCR or polymerase chain reaction method — regarded as the gold standard — in which saliva is extracted from the patient's throat using a cotton swab. But since that, many others tests have been developed. Indeed, worldwide over 350 products were on the market by the end of July this year, including rapid antigen tests.

The big drawback with the Jamaican Government is that it is not yet in a position in which it can invite citizens to test for COVID-19 at will. If someone has what is suspected to be symptoms of the disease, he or she must call the Ministry of Health and make an appointment for a test.

They must then wait to be tested and then endure a further wait, sometimes up to 14 days, for results, during which time they could be spreading the virus, or, if they can afford to, stay at home while business and other important activities remain on hold. If a positive result returns, then there is another 14 days in isolation.

We gather that there have been situations in which Jamaicans have gone to a private lab to be tested, only for the Health Department to say it has not accredited the lab and so do not recognise the result. So the patient is back to square one.

The good thing is that there is no charge for the test when it is done at a Jamaican Government facility, as compared with $18,500 at the University Hospital of the West Indies or $20,000 at some private labs.

But time is money. Not everyone can afford the long wait for results, and not everyone wants to wait in a long line at a government health facility. This is where private labs come in.

The reluctance to accept anything but the PCR tests seems to be at the heart of the problem. But while this is happening, the new antigen test has been gaining ground worldwide and has received the stamp of approval from the WHO.

In fact, only three days ago the Pan American Health Organisation, an arm of the WHO, urged Latin American and Caribbean countries to step up use of the rapid antigen tests, which it said could “transform COVID-19 response in the Americas”.

“The new tests will enable primary health care workers, whether they're working in the middle of the Amazon, or in an urban centre, to diagnose and care for patients immediately, stopping further infections in their tracks. And that is the game changer,” PAHO said.

Government should tell the country why it fears working with adequately equipped private labs to make faster, more efficient, and accurate COVID-19 tests available to Jamaicans virtually on demand.