Stock of kits to transport coronavirus samples limited

We’ll add to the stock. Present demand is only four or five kits per day

Kathmandu, March 15

Nepal’s health sector, which has limited stock of equipment to test coronavirus disease, is now facing another problem: shortage of kits to safely transport samples collected from suspected COVID-19 patients.

Nepal currently has only one laboratory to perform coronavirus tests. Samples collected from suspected coronavirus patients across the country are sent to the National Public Health Laboratory in Kathmandu. In other words, throat and nasal swabs of even those residing outside Kathmandu need to be sent to the NPHL to confirm whether they have contracted COVID-19.

These samples are transported in kits known as viral transport media. But the NPHL only has 1,000 such kits in its stock, which, according to medical experts, will not be enough if there is sudden rise in the number of infections, especially outside the valley.

The World Health Organisation strongly recommends the use of VTM whenever specimens cannot be taken to the labs promptly, because these kits allow storage of samples at a temperature of 2-8 degree Celsius.

“Cold chain should be maintained to keep the virus safe. If we fail to maintain the temperature, chances of the virus becoming inactive become high. It the virus goes inactive, we cannot get accurate results,” said NPHL Information Officer Rajesh Kumar Gupta.

At the moment, even private hospitals in Kathmandu are requesting the NPHL to send the VTM to safely transport body samples, according to Gupta. “We have been supplying them after getting an official letter from them,” said Gupta.

But the VTM will be in short supply if the number of infections goes up, leading to haphazard transportation of specimen. Yet NPHL has said it is not necessary to keep a good stock of kits at the moment. “This is because they have limited shelf life,” said NPHL Director Runa Jha, adding, “We will get more of them as there is demand for only four or five kits per day at present.” She, however, did not comment on the government’s lengthy procurement process, which restricts timely purchase of goods. The presence of centralised specimen testing system has prompted chief ministers to call on the federal government to establish at least one coronavirus test lab in every province.

“We made this demand during the meeting called today by the COVID-19 Prevention and Coordination Committee led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Ishwar Pokhrel. Presence of labs outside Kathmandu will ease the process of testing the samples,” said Karnali Province Chief Minister Mahendra Bahadur Shahi.

Specimen handling for molecular testing would require Bio Safety Level-2 or equivalent facilities, according to the WHO. “The labs should be well equipped and operated by trained human resources, as virus can leak if proper precautions are not taken. So, there should be proper disposal of the virus and waste should be properly managed,” said Gupta.

The government is currently mulling over coordinating with private laboratories outside the valley to perform coronavirus tests if there is sudden increase in the number of infections, according to Health Ministry Spokesperson Bikash Devkota.