Earlier this year, in February, twenty-four (24) countries in the African region confirmed to the World Health Organization (WHO) that they could test for potential COVID-19 cases. Only two weeks before that they were only two referral laboratories – one in South Africa and another in Senegal – capable of doing this.
Zimbabwe used to employ the use of South Africa’s laboratories.
Prior to the pandemic breaking out many of the laboratories lacked the reagents necessary for testing because the virus had not been in humans before, thus there were no pre-existing supplies of reagents that could be used to test for its presence.
Reagents are chemicals that are used to produce a chemical reaction.
However as soon as the genetic sequence of the virus was published, manufacturers around the world began racing to produce reagents.
Fast forward to today with the number of infections spiking up across the world, a new challenge has cropped up. The countries are struggling to test an adequate number of people.
Locally they have been as few as 165 tests as of Thursday, 26 March, and according to Ministry of Health numbers, the country only has 5 infected people.
This technically means they could be others out there sick and not officially recognised because they are yet to be tested. The public has not accepted that the country has such low infections and has come up with conspiracies to fill the void. The failure by the government to test as many people as possible can, however, be explained.
The Testing Process
First, there is a shortage of testing kits.
Ventilators which many have been crying about are at the apex end of the chain for a sick person. He needs to be tested first.
Almost all tests currently being carried out start with a sample being taken either from the nose or the back of the throat or both, using a special swab.
According to experts the nose and the back of the throat are the two sites where the virus is replicating and so they swab those cells where the virus might be.
The swabs are then put into a solution that releases the cells.
The swab tests are used to match the genetic material captured on the swab with the genetic code of Covid-19.
The actual testing process is done in a laboratory where they are then tested in batches using a technique known as polymerase chain reaction – or PCR.
The PCR technique which is used to test for Coronavirus is the same one used to test for other viruses, including HIV, Hepatitis C and influenzas.
This testing method takes several hours and can cost around $400 in some private facilities.
Everything could be well and fine if the shortages were only about the testing kits. Recently Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated to Africa 1.5 million of them.
They are a drop in the ocean of Zimbabwe and Africa’s generally dilapidated health system but they are a start.
Health Minister Dr Moyo has also been quoted saying that they had done “an assessment of our national Microbiology Reference Laboratory and we found it to have adequate, in actual fact, state-of-the-art equipment for Polymerise Chain Reaction (PCR)”.
However, there is another challenge in the shortage of laboratory supplies and reagents to carry out those tests.
This critical shortage of the physical components needed to carry out tests of any variety severely limits the ability of health institutions to carry out the tests.
Some of the commodities required and currently in short supply due to the economic effects of the same pandemic in industries across the world are so-called viral transport media, which are useful for the stabilization of a specimen as it travels from patient to lab.
Extraction kits, which isolate viral RNA from specimens once they reach the lab and the reagents that do the actual work of determining whether the coronavirus that causes COVID19 is present in the sample are also in short supply.
Also in short supply are the test swabs themselves which are used to preserve viral specimens.
Due to the secretive approach by the government, it’s not yet clear how much it has of these and how many are needed going forward.
The Propaganda Problem
Whilst local health officials have maintained a political stance, amplifying propaganda and minimizing facts, through the whole saga of Covid-19, the summary conclusion of information given out point to a system that is struggling.
As of today, Wilkins has been shut down for renovations and the City Mayor Herbert Gomba said it had only been open because of a Corona patient. That patient has since died.
The position goes against the pre-Corona government pronouncement that the facility would be the focal point for Covid-19 patients.
From a national level, the President has also exhibited signs of indecisiveness on how to react and deal with the situation on the ground.
One week he announced a ban on 100+ gatherings and the following week with no significant change to the situation reduced the numbers to 50.
That is also beside the fact on the ground dictating that Zimbabwe, with its highly formalised population, needs a specific tailor-made approach and not a generic blanket approach as other nations are doing.
Why the government has been so secretive and hesitant in its dealing with the pandemic remains a matter of conjecture and conspiracy.