NUST to manufacture Covid-19 test kits

THE National University of Science and Technology (NUST) is set to start producing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test kits for the country in response to Covid-19 that has killed over 1 500 Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe is importing the conclusive diagnostic test kit that determines if one is infected by analysing a sample for genetic material from the virus.

A Covid-19 PCR test costs about US$60 in private health institutions, a development which made the test a luxury for a few.

Once NUST starts producing the kit, members of the public will pay about US$20 for a PCR test, while Government will reduce its import bill.

The innovation at the Bulawayo institution of higher learning will also help the country detect the different strains of Covid-19.

Besides Covid-19, the local production of PCR test kits will help Zimbabwe handle some diseases like HIV whose prevalence in the country is one of the highest in the world at 12,3 percent.

A PCR test can also be used to detect viral load and can be used in animals to ascertain various diseases and viruses.

The country has conducted 558 451 Covid-19 tests since the global pandemic was first detected in Zimbabwe on 21 March 2020.

Of the tests, 359 663 were PCR tests and the rest were antigen and rapid diagnostic tests (RDT).

In an interview yesterday, the acting director of the Applied Genetic Testing Centre, Mr Zephaniah Dhlamini, said through assistance from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development, NUST will be acquiring a DNA synthesizer machine, which will be used to produce the kits.

NUST will produce about 50 000 PCR kits weekly and currently the country conducts about 15 000 Covid-19 weekly.

“The applied DNA testing lab was asked by Government to assist in the testing of Covid-19 up to about November last year and we were doing the first wave of the virus. During that time, we were testing people from the southern region which includes Bulawayo, Masvingo, Midlands, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South provinces,” said Mr Dhlamini.

He said during that time about 40 000 Covid-19 samples were processed at the University’s lab situated at Mpilo Central Hospital.

“In total during that time, we tested close to 40 000 people and we were using kits which are imported mainly from China and we were using our equipment at the Mpilo National TB Reference lab as it has a safety facility that enables one to work with Covid-19 safely,” he said.

“After having used so many kits from different companies we realised that one of the kits was developed and made by one university in China. We realised there isn’t much in terms of what goes into the kit which made us think in other terms as we are known for.

“The important component that we noted was the PCR primer which is a unit or molecule used to detect Covid DNA. So we concluded we needed to have a developed capacity to manufacture these primers. So we asked for help from the Government through the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development to get us a DNA synthesizer.”

Mr Dhlamini said the machine will synthesize molecules not just for Covid-19 testing but even for other diseases.

“You can make primers for any disease that you can think of as these can also work for viral load detection in HIV and so it is very worthwhile to have it in the country. The other components which we will need are the ready-to-use enzymes and then we put the kit together,” he said.

The PCR test will include tubes which contain a liquid called Virus Transport Media that keeps the virus active and alive so that by the time it reaches the lab the scientists can then pick it if it’s there.

“When the samples reach the lab we will do what we call a RNA extraction to then test for the virus.

“Unfortunately we have had delays in the procurement of the DNA synthesizer but we are engaging the Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (PRAZ) hoping that the machine comes soon and we start working at least by May this year,” he added.

He said NUST will use a scale of operation which will see the production of 50 000 units of VRM, RNA extraction and the test kits per week, each unit will be 4mls in an appropriate container.

Mr Dhlamini said the production will address the shortage of test kits which tends to compromise the country’s response to Covid-19.

“The beauty about having our own PCR kits is that we will be able to respond to different Covid-19 strains.

“If there is a new strain for instance which cannot be picked by a kit coming from outside we can quickly design primers which are specific for that strain as well and also design kits which can differentiate the various strains of Covid-19.

“If you say someone has Covid but has the SA strain we will be able to pick that with our technology here at NUST because the brains and the science we have, we just need resources.

“I am sure that even in terms of making a Covid-19 vaccine we can, because whatever those scientists learn in terms of theory is what our students go through.

“Hence, with an injection of about US$2m in one of our labs in Zimbabwe I believe we can come up with our own vaccine,” he added. – Chronicle.

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