The turnaround time for results of Covid-19 tests is not fast because experts say the process is not the same as testing for malaria or pregnancy because different kits are used, and the process, more delicate. It takes a lot of time to test and most importantly, it is more delicate.
Things are, however, changing in recent weeks as the process has been quickened through ‘pooling’, which accounts for the improved turnaround time we’re witnessing in Ghana. This has put the country at the top as the African country with most test for Covid-19 per capita.
The term ‘pooling’ has been thrown about a lot with many people not understanding what the terminology means. For the ordinary Ghanaian, not even the explanation by the experts at the Covid-19 media briefing did justice to it.
As always, my journalistic instinct kicked in and the focus was to get to explain to the Ghanaians people and wherever our audiences are anywhere in the world, what ‘pooling’ means in the context of testing samples for Covid-19.
I needed answers and getting to understand the term and process well so I stepped into a ‘slaughter house’; a facility conducting test for the virus. It is a high-risk area, but because it’s in the interest of the general population, someone had to do it.
And to get the public informed about the delicate and laborious nature of the testing process, I reached out to a source who was able to secure an appointment to the Greater Accra Veterinary Service Directorate (VSD) on the Osu-Labadi road in Accra.
Before this adventure, we knew of Noguchi Memorial Institute, Korle-Bu, Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research (KCCR) as designated places for conducting Covid-19 tests in the country. It, however, became clear that the VSD has on the quite been playing a significant role by assisting Noguchi with tests. Other VSD offices in the Western and Northern regions with one CFX96 machine each have also been brought on board to assist with the tests.
With a level 3 laboratory, the VSD in Accra has two of the CFX96 real time PCR machine, each with 96 Wells. The facility has the capacity of conducting not less than two thousand tests in 24 hours.
Leader of the Laboratory, Dr. Theophilus Odoom was kind enough to walk me through the process and explaining in details, what happens at every step before a sample is declared positive, or the one we all want to hear; negative.
It was during Dr. Odom’s explanation that I got to see and know that the ‘pooling’ process is when samples of ten suspected Covid-19 patients in 10 different small plastic containers, are tied into one plastic bag and dropped into an eppendorf cube, after which the samples are well mixed and then a quantity of the pooled sample is taken for the RNA extraction.
Dressed like astronauts on spacecraft in a highly secured level 3 laboratory, staff of the Veterinary service directorate in Accra conduct Covid-19 tests on sputum samples they receive from the Noguchi Memorial Institute.
Dr. Odoom explained to me why they deploy the highest level of circumspection because losing focus at a point has the potential of declaring a sample positive when in actual fact, it’s negative.
As professionals as they are, these guys who risk their lives to conduct the test face the toughest challenge as far as chances of getting infected by the virus is concerned.
They are in constant touch with the invisible enemy that continue to wreak havoc across the globe. Just think about this, part of the ‘working tool’ for these guys is the virus itself. They collect, pool, shake, mix, master mix, extract, and do some computation before declaring the fate of a sample.
And at each stage as listed above, the doctors and technicians are potentially handling the biological hazard; the coronavirus. The privilege of observing the process up to ethically accepted stage, also meant that exposing myself to the virus; a risk I had to take to get you informed about the tiny but extremely dangerous enemy.
The doctors and technicians have tested and seen both positive and negative samples. In fact, they have even seen samples that turn out to be ‘neutral’ because it wasn’t properly collected. Cognisant of the dangers they face on daily basis, some of them have decided to self-isolate.
Dr. Ababio, who supervises technicians at the RNA extraction stage tell me, ‘I have self-isolated for over a month now’ he tells me. Adding, “I did so because I don’t want to expose any member of my family to the virus…even though I miss them I have to endure until all this is over.”
Still at the level 3 laboratory but on a different section, I met Daniel. He does the master mixing of the samples. His work is as important. He sees the fates of samples before any other person in the chain. I asked him how he feels when a sample comes out Positive. His response gave me goosebumps.
Even as he answered my question, Daniel was still focused and concentrated on mixing the many samples in tiny containers with codes written and embossed on them. He couldn’t help but drop his tools at a point and said to me, “every negative sample gets me breathing a sigh of relief’.
So, I asked again, what happens when the table turns and a sample come out Positive? Daniel took a deep breath and with his eyes blinking fast with tears, and his voice shaking for the first time for the five hours I’d been at the laboratory. He said to me, “Positive results are disheartening. When I see it, I ask, who is this person? Am I related to this person? Have I come into contact with this person? Where is he/she right now? Who is he/she with? Is he exposing them to the virus?”
“It is disheartening and dangerous but for the love of the job and the country we come in everyday to put our lives on the line.”
That sentiment by Daniel resonates with the staff at the facility. Dr. Theophilus Odoom shared similar sentiment. As far as they are concerned, it is highly unlikely for a day to travel full cycle without the dreaded experience of recording some Positive samples.
The attentiveness of the doctors and technicians handling the samples for me, was out of this world. They acted with the circumspection of a medical doctor conducting surgery on a patient at the theatre. For the little over five hours I spent at the veterinary service directorate in Accra, all I saw was dedicated workers determined to help the country get ahead of the pandemic and win the war against the invisible enemy.
That gave me a sense of hope, knowing that we have a president who has openly and to the admiration of many, spoken about how to maneuver and come out of the ‘war’ with bruises other than scars, with the support of the frontline health workers, there is high chance that Ghana will not be battered and bruised like Europe, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
To get ahead of the pandemic, WHO advocates testing and that is exactly what Ghana is doing.
But I left the level 3 laboratory scratching my head. One of the workers whispered into my ears that they are running out of PPE’s. Apparently, they have not received a single PPE from the Health Ministry. Not even from the corporate organisations who have been donating to the likes of Noguchi, the Ga East District hospital, and the Health ministry.
We may want to supply them with the consumables to ensure they continue to not just compliment the work of Noguchi, but also add on to Ghana’s remarkable performance in this grim but necessary contest of nations verses Covid-19.