The National TB Reference Laboratory at Mpilo Hospital has stopped doing Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID-19, testing due to lack of consumables and support services from the government.
The laboratory is now forced to only conduct urgent tests for hospital patients suspected of having COVID-19 or those in detention.
COVID-19 testing started in Bulawayo after the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) moved its machinery and personnel from its Applied Genetics Testing Centre (AGTC) to Mpilo Hospital, which has a Level 3 Bio-safety laboratory.
But NUST has used up its consumables from its AGTC to conduct COVID-19 testing yet the university was running a business from genetic testing.
Director of the AGTC, Zephaniah Dlamini told a delegation led by Deputy Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science, Innovation and Technology Development, Raymond Machingura Wednesday that the COVID-19 laboratory was operating in difficult conditions as it “never” received any consumables from the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
“We took our machines and personnel to Mpilo and we were made to believe that we were supposed to be capacitated in terms of resources for the testing. When we started, we only received PCR kits and nothing else in terms of consumables that were promised.
“We kept on telling officials that we are from the Innovation Hub at NUST and our role there is to make money by DNA testing for the institution,” he said.
Dlamini said since resources were diverted for COVID-19 testing, the AGTC centre was “no longer doing its core business which is generating funds for university through DNA testing.”
“To make matters worse, we are not receiving the support that we need from the Ministry of Health. So we kept on lending the COVID-19 laboratory – cannibalising from our AGTC lab equipment such as pipettes, microcentrifuge tubes, microtiter plates.”
So far, NUST has done 3 000 COVID-19 tests at Mpilo.
“As a result, we are not doing 350 PCR tests per day. We only do those very urgent cases of people who are either in detention or in hospitals suspected to have COVID-19. It is a very dire situation as we don’t have the materials that we use for testing,” Dlamini said.
“We have people in quarantine centres in Beitbridge, Victoria Falls, Plumtree and here in Bulawayo so we are overwhelmed with samples. We cannot really afford to have these delays.”
Dlamini noted “numerous emails had been sent to different officials including, Finance Minister -Professor Mthuli Ncube” who was in Bulawayo recently and even toured the COVID-19 lab at Mpilo.
“Prof Ncube promised to look into it but nothing is coming through.”
He said the laboratory now had a backlog of over 700 samples.
“As NUST, we ended up saying we can no longer continue subsidising COVID-19 testing, as the institution is receiving nothing. We are not being paid for it yet we use our resources. Up until we receive requisite resources, we are not going to be testing.
“That’s what’s on the ground. If you go to Mpilo now, you will realise there is no testing happening because the supplies are not there. It is a sad development, “ Dlamini said, pleading with the higher education ministry to engage the Ministry of Health officials.
“There is need to say at that level someone has to pay. We cannot be doing charity work at this point in time.”
Deputy Minister- Machingura, asked what arrangement NUST made with the government so he could have better understanding.
Dlamini said their participation as AGTC was not voluntary.
“Before we moved equipment to Mpilo, we met with the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) health department that we can offer this service for testing. We have the equipment and skills. I remember we gave the BCC figures as to how much a PCR test will cost. BCC was the one leading the rapid response team locally.
“We went to Mpilo, and they were receptive to us. Before we knew it, we received a letter from the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health instructing us to move our equipment to Mpilo and start testing. That letter was copied to the Higher and Tertiary Education Minister, Prof Amon Murwira and NUST vice-chancellor. We complied starting at that level and started testing without discussing the monetary issues,” he said.
The deputy minister advised NUST to write its concerns, especially lack of consumables, whose memo would be taken to Prof Murwira.
“The letter must concern the business aspect of the testing, maybe ask in a polite way. I think everyone who is involved in this fight, especially NUST must have a budget for it. I will seek clarification and push for you,” Machingura said.