Monday 26 October, 2020

Faster, more affordable COVID test coming to Jamaica - Health Ministry

iStock photo of lab performing rapid diagnostic test for antibodies to detect presence of antigens.

iStock photo of lab performing rapid diagnostic test for antibodies to detect presence of antigens.

Jamaica will introduce a new method of testing for the coronavirus (COVID-19) in October with the purchase of 80,000 antigen F200 test kits, the Ministry of Health and Wellness announced on Thursday.

The new COVID-19 antigen kits, which has been approved by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO)/World Health Organisation (WHO), will be used in both public and private facilities across the island, which include all hospitals, major health centres and laboratories, health official said at a press conference.

According to the acting head of the National Public Health Laboratory, Dr Michelle Hamilton, the antigen F200 test kits will be supplied by South Korea-based SD Biosensor Inc and will provide results faster and at a more cost-effective rate than the PCR tests which the island have been using since COVID-19 testing started in February.

Hamilton, however, said that while both the antigen and PCR tests can detect infection, the new antigen testing will only be used on symptomatic patients. She said that when the test is used on asymptomatic patients, it decreases the ability to detect the virus by about 20 per cent. She explained that this is because the PCR test detects the genetic material of the virus, whereas the antigen test detects proteins which the virus produces as it reproduces.

The new method will only involve nasopharyngeal swabs, which is unlike the PCR test, which uses a combination of both nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs.

“Both of these tests give very good results. They have high specificity, so if they are positive then we have confidence in the fact that this test can predict the positive cases.

“There is a difference in the sensitivity of the tests, in that the antigen test is not as sensitive, which means that some of the cases that are negative could be a false negative, but we will make allowance for that by repeating whatever tests we have that are negative, on the PCR,” Hamilton said.

The 80,000 antigen kits that the Ministry of Health and Wellness will receive, is a collaboration through the PAHO/WHO, Foreign Commonwealth Development Office of the United Kingdom and the United Nations. The kits are expected to arrive on the island in approximately four weeks.

According to Hamilton, theoretical training will be taking place in the next two weeks on a virtual platform before the kits arrive, with practical training commencing after the arrival. The training will be for public and private sector individuals.

The pilot project will be first used in public health facilities before a full implementation, which will then include the private sector.

Hamilton said, because of the simplicity of the antigen test, more private labs will now be able to conduct COVID-19 tests.  She said the private laboratories will have to have suitable sites and able to meet the agreed criteria.

The testing at private institutions will have to be ordered by a physician and the facilities will have to submit a report to the Ministry of Health and Wellness for data gathering.

Meanwhile, Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr Christopher Tufton, said that while the ministry has been criticised for not sanctioning tests other than the PCR, health officials wanted to ensure that the public was safe when it approved other methods of testing. He said this is the reason the ministry waited on the go-ahead from PAHO/WHO.

“The antigen testing is a game-changer for the pace and the efficiency of testing and we are very happy about that. I hope the country appreciates the reason why we had to wait for the right time because we had to be guided by PAHO/WHO.

“When we are dealing with people’s lives, this is a sector that has to be cautious. We have to be conservative and it is not that experiments aren’t out there, trial and errors, margins of error, but we have to be guided by the process and be ethical in the considerations of what we sanction and what we don’t,” Tufton said.

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