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Scientists urge Mkhize to rethink Covid-19 testing strategy

Leading scientists have called for an urgent rethink of South Africa’s approach to Covid-19 testing, arguing that, in the face of serious resource constraints and a large testing backlog, the current strategy is not producing the desired results.

News24 reported that Professor Francois Venter, head of the Ezintsha health unit at the University of the Witwatersrand and a member of the government’s Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), said he and other scientists could not understand why health authorities were sticking to a testing strategy which was not producing the necessary results.

He said scientists had repeatedly advised that an urgent rethink was needed.

This came as positive cases in South Africa rose to 70 038 (with 38 531 recoveries), and deaths rose to 1 480.

In the report, Venter said: ‘The turnaround times (for tests) remain a disaster. We (scientists) have told them repeatedly to throw away the medical waste and prioritise. We’ve been saying this for weeks.’

The report said that, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the average turnaround time for tests is now about nine days, up from two days in April.

It said that Venter and others had for weeks argued that, due to severe resource constraints, leading to low turnaround times from sample collection to results, tests should be reserved for hospitalised patients and healthcare workers.

It is reported that two other members of the MAC supported Venter’s sentiments this week: Dr Jeremy Nel, head of infectious diseases at Helen Joseph Hospital, said the testing strategy ‘is not moving fast enough in the right direction’, while Professor Shabir Madhi, newly appointed dean of the health faculty at Wits, confirmed that ‘a prioritised approach was recommended to the minister’.

All three said, however, that they could not comment on what took place at MAC meetings, as these were confidential.

News24 said that, until now, the Covid-19 strategy – defended by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in an interview on Friday – involved testing patients referred from a mass screening programme, which had seen more than 180 000 people referred for Covid-19 tests so far.

According to Mkhize, this had enabled the department to identify hotspots which would be targeted with more resources, including priority testing.

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However, Venter was quoted as saying: ‘Certainly, you’d want to focus on hotspots, but it’s a nice-to-have.’

‘We are also told they are getting on top of their “backlog”. Let’s be clear, after 48 hours, it’s not a backlog, it’s medical waste that must be thrown away…

‘This is a crisis and it has been for weeks. I do not understand why the minister and the health department are not urgently changing course.’

Nel said: ‘However, there still isn’t a clear system in place to prioritise the tests coming from key groups, such as hospitalised patients, and healthcare workers (who need urgent tests so that we know if they can return to the frontlines early). This is despite the issue being raised publicly for weeks on end.’

The report said Mkhize acknowledged on Friday that the backlog was a problem, saying his department was managing this on a day-to-day basis. He said the backlog, currently around 63 000 tests according to the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), was a small percentage of the one million tests done so far.

The argument that Venter and others had made on various platforms recently was that if Covid-19 samples were only processed up to two weeks after being taken, as was currently the case, the department could not isolate them and track their contacts in time to meaningfully impact on the spread of the disease.

Processing the thousands of ‘backlogged’ tests effectively became pointless and was clogging up the system, so that urgent cases – such as those of healthcare workers – could not be processed quickly enough.

First published on Daily Friend:

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