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March 20, 2020

Pakistan first South Asian country to get hold of coronavirus testing kits


March 20, 2020

Islamabad : Amid the escalating coronavirus incidence in the country, the National Institute of Health (NIH) claims to have tracked most of the pilgrims, who returned from Iran shortly before the outbreak began there last month.

“Around 7,500 Pakistani pilgrims returned from Iran during the fortnight that passed before their host country reported a large number of confirmed cases and deaths in the third week of last month. Alert to the situation, we’re quick to spring into action and went after the returnees just to prevent the spread of the virus. Until now, we’ve located around 6,500 of them along with their social contacts despite resource and infrastructure constraints and are tracking the rest for diagnosis by labs at the provincial level,” NIH executive director Major General Dr Aamer Ikram told ‘The News’.

Pakistan confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus on February 26 and since then, the tally has surpassed the 300 mark though the people subjected to testing on return from abroad total over 400.

NIH, the national reference laboratory serving the country’s need for diagnostic purposes in infectious outbreaks and epidemic situations, carries out coronavirus test with the help of kits obtained from abroad.

“Pakistan is the first South Asian country to get hold of coronavirus testing kits, which were offered by China. While having an adequate stock of testing kits, the NIH has provided them to Karachi’s Aga Khan, Dow University and Civil hospitals, Lahore’s Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Institute of Public Health, Multan’s Nishtar Hospital, Peshawar’s Khyber Medical University, and Gilgit and Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s health departments besides training their relevant staff members,” said the NIH executive director.

Besides procuring more kits from different countries, the NIH also intends to develop them by themselves.

“PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is the best technique to diagnose coronavirus, an RNA virus, and primers are required for PCR testing. However, primers aren’t synthesised in Pakistan, so the country depends on others for it. Now realising the gravity of the situation, we’re going to buy a system from USA for the very early detection of the virus by developing primers and standardising them. It’ll take us few weeks to begin doing so to meet own needs,” he said.

Major General Dr Aamer, a public health expert, said the RT-PCR technique converted that RNA into DNA and multiplied it by machine before carrying out several exercises to detect the virus and it’s a highly specialised testing technique, so not all pathological labs could perform the test.

He said as the strengthening of the lab capacity in terms of rapid diagnostic testing was always needed for any national reference lab, the new system would result in enhanced productivity of the lab.

“We believe that in-house capacity building in terms of diagnosis will help change the face of the pandemic,” he said

The NIH chief said the institute had shifted a state-of-the-art, costly mobile Bio-Safety Level-3 lab to the Pak-Iranian border to handle the deadly coronavirus.

“The lab will test the suspected cases quarantined on the Taftan border then and there as we can’t afford to import more cases,” he said.

Major General Dr Aamer said confirmed cases were discharged from hospitals only after they tested negative for coronavirus twice.

He said if any positive coronavirus case was reported as negative for one reason or the other, the consequences would be extremely unfortunate during the outbreak.

The NIH chief said the institute continued to monitor the evolving situation.

“We are working with a multi-faceted approach in areas of surveillance, response, diagnostic services and many others to ensure the optimal health and well-being of people of Pakistan. We are capable of handling the situation in case the disease spreads,” he said.

Major General Dr Aamer said the national health services ministry, which oversaw the NIH, had issued coronavirus guidelines and advisories with the structured National Action Plan for all institutions and organisations, while its dedicated staff was working day and night to avert epidemics and spread of such diseases, promote healthy behaviours and response to public health emergencies in Pakistan.

“The government is concerned about the issue and cautiously handling the economic impact of the current outbreak. Collective efforts are being made at both federal and provincial levels to contain the situation, while budget issues are also being managed well,” he said.