The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has launched the fleet of 60 vans at the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) on Wednesday, 1 April, increasing the overall number of mobile testing units to 67.  The vans will enable health authorities to increase the country’s testing capacity to 30 000 people in a 24 hour period . Mkhize says they are currently able to conduct 5 000 tests per day at ten laboratories across the country.

The units will be sent to priority districts and will be deployed to hotspots which will be identified by the Health MECs in different provinces. Almost a thousand particularly vulnerable wards were mapped out by the Department of Health, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and non-profit organisation Right to Care. Officials used the social vulnerability index developed using the latest census data to select the wards across the country.

While there are various tests available, the mobile units will focus on PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which use a swab from the back of the nose and throat, and GeneXpert testing. Each van has about four GeneXpert machines, which were designed for TB testing and will be able to do tests on the coronavirus in about 45 minutes. “That’s really going to be a change agent for the test,” says CEO of NHLS, Dr Kamy Chetty who was also at the launch. The test kits have recently been approved by the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week and are likely to only be approved and rolled out in two weeks.

The Health minister also said testing will include rapid antibody tests once they become available, and that they are working with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) to make these available soon. 

Mkhize said the approach to curbing the disease is shifting to be more offensive and proactive not just defensive. He called the current testing protocols “reactive and restrictive” and said that hundreds of thousands more South Africans must be tested in order to get a clearer picture of the scale of the disease.

“Rather than waiting for the patient to come to hospital now, we are going to go out now and look for and find the patient,” he said. Now that internal transmissions of the virus in the country have increased, Mkhize says they are focusing on testing beyond patients who were “easy to suspect” because of their travel history. 

Gauteng MEC for Health, Bandile Masuku, said that they are learning from other countries such as South Korea to “start with those who are high risk and then go to those that are at a lower risk.” He added that they have not yet made the decision on how testing will be done. Currently screening relies on symptoms and history of possible contact with COVID-19 patients, but Masuku indicated that the rapid tests will be added to support this.- Health-e News


For more information on Covid-19 in South Africa, you can call the toll-free line on 0800 029 999, or you can send a message that says “Hi” on WhatsApp to the number 060 012 3456. You can also visit the SA Coronavirus website.