Shortage of laboratory materials imperils novel coronavirus testing

Kathmandu, May 5

A number of hospitals conducting tests to confirm coronavirus infection are facing shortage of critical laboratory materials, threatening to decelerate the pace of examining suspected COVID-19 specimens.

Surkhet Provincial Hospital is about to run out of stock of RNA extraction kits and Viral Transport Media. RNA extraction kits help remove virus’s RNA from tissues.

RNA extraction is one of the key processes to test the presence of coronavirus in a human body. Viral Transport Media, on the other hand, is a kit used to transport coronavirus specimens at a controlled temperature.

“We only have about 30 RNA extraction kits and 30 VTM are left with us, whereas reagents are sufficient to test only about 40 samples,” said the hospital’s Director Damber Khadka. The hospital has a capacity to perform about 90 tests per day but is examining about 50 samples daily.

The hospital had asked the Ministry of Health and Population to send supplies a week ago.

“But we have not received them,” said Khadka. “If we don’t get additional materials soon, we will be forced to suspend the laboratory’s operation.”

The hospital is located near Nepalgunj, which has seen a sharp uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases since Friday.

Bir Hospital, the largest public hospital, is facing a similar problem. It has stopped performing all tests to confirm coronavirus infection since yesterday as it has run out of stock of RNA extraction kits.

“We have suspended polymerase chain reaction tests of throat and nasal swabs as we do not have RNA extraction kits with us now,” said Bir Hospital’s director Kedar Century. The hospital too has informed the health ministry about lack of testing materials. “But the ministry has not made them available to us,” said Century.

The hospital has been conducting PCR tests of suspected COVID-19 patients and those suffering from fever, cough and other symptoms of coronavirus disease before performing surgeries on them. The hospital has performed 150 PCR tests since April 10. This number includes tests conducted among patients who underwent surgery at the National Trauma Centre.

The hospital’s laboratory can test 60 samples in two cycles daily.

The hospital has been seeing about 200 patients in its out-patient department and 50 patients in its emergency ward per day.

Currently, 18 laboratories across the country are conducting COVID-19 tests through PCR method. PCR is a more reliable method to confirm COVID-19 cases and medical experts have been calling on the government to rapidly expand PCR tests. But shortage of key laboratory materials is likely to create a hurdle.

“We are facing shortage of VTM. We have only 40 of those left. If we run out of this stock, we won’t be able to deliver the service,” Jagadish Joshi, spokesperson for Seti Provincial Hospital said, adding, “We are also facing shortage of human resources, as only four persons are available to carry out the entire testing process.”

The hospital has a capacity to examine about 90 samples per day but has been conducting about 30 tests daily.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on May 6, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.