The “white-jacketed” staff running the show apart from medics

The lab professionals are the ones churning out results for COVID-19 tests

Across the world, every day people are applauding the brave healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses and doctors all over the world are doing a phenomenal job day in and day out, but the role of lab personnel can easily be overlooked.

Though they may not be on the frontline testing or caring for patients face to face, they have been working diligently in recent months, aiding the fight against the COVID-19.

The Royal Center for Disease Control (RCDC) has become home for some workers of Virology and Molecular laboratory. They spend 24 hours at the center leaving behind their families.

Chief Laboratory officer at Virology and Molecular Division at RCDC, Binay Thapa said that initially there were four laboratory personnel dedicated for COVID-19. Now there are seven of them including the one who is currently in Gelephu providing RT-PCR training to lab personnel.

“With seven lab personnel, at this point of time, the center is quite comfortable,” said the Chief Laboratory Officer.

He said that initially all the laboratory personnel used to stay at the center before the three lab officers from other districts joined them. Now three of them stay at night to test emergency samples and also to repeat tests from the day samples collected if required.

“In case there is community breakdown, the center has trained additional personnel from other departments also to process sample testing in the lab,” said Binay Thapa.

He said that although the lab’s hours are from 9am to 5pm, the lab technicians often run tests for 24 hours when the number of samples collected necessitates around-the-clock operations.

However, he said timing is flexible for the lab personnel. At the minimum they work around 9-20 hours a day.

In a day on an average, 50 to 60 samples are being processed for testing. However, when there are returnees from outside the sample size increases above 200.

“It takes about six hours for processing the test samples. Sometimes the sample is tested again for reconfirmation of the result,” he said.

Extraction of 50 samples requires around two people in the lab, he added.

Asked about safety for lab personnel, he said that they follow bio-safety protocol and ensure every activity is conducted safely.

The workers wear the proper mandated personal protective equipment when working, which consists of a lab coat and gloves in their Biosafety Level 2 lab environment.

So what happens when a test comes back positive?

Immediately after a positive result is generated in the lab and reviewed at the appropriate level, firstly the result is conveyed to medical specialist Dr Sonam Wangchuk who then relays the result to quarantine facility/ hospitals and also to the Ministry of Health.

“Besides testing, the lab also does verification and validation of sample’s details and data entry into the electronic-based system. This lab serves as the reference lab for other COVID-19 testing centers and engages in communication with these labs in addressing technical challenges,” he said.

He said that RCDC also monitors and maintains inventory of reagents and other consumables associated with COVID-19 testing. It generates reports on COVID-19 situation on a weekly basis.

“Through RT-PCR, we detect viral RNA and by other rapid test kits, antibodies and antigens are detected. We store positive samples for further testing and study,” said Binay Thapa.

Laboratory personnel, who work in medical laboratories that test for the COVID-19, ensure that all tests are functioning and that patients receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Dorji Wangchuk, senior lab officer at RCDC said that they have been working and studying in the lab since January end this year on COVID-19.

Samples are collected from quarantine centers and the flu clinics and tested in batches and reached at the centers usually after lunch.

“Main testing of sthe amples starts towards the afternoon. It takes around two hours in the machines only,” he said.

He said that they wear personal protective equipment in the lab and there is no chance of getting infections.

If there is an emergency that needs samples to be tested at night, three lab personnel are there at the center for 24 hours.  Currently, there are four lab centers in the country – RCDC, Phuentsholing, Mongar and Gelephu.

Some of the challenges that the centers face from COVID-19 testing are availability of test kits and consumables, shipment of samples from hospitals to COVID-19 testing laboratory for RT-PCR testing due to the difficult geographical terrain.

Dechen Dolkar from Thimphu