The National Reference Laboratory, under the National Tuberculosis Center, works around the clock to provide diagnosis for both TB and Covid-19. Under the UNDP’s “Effective HIV and TB control in the Kyrgyz Republic” project, funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the laboratory conducted innovative rapid tests for Covid-19, a first in the country.
When Covid-19 found its way to Kyrgyzstan in March 2020, the laboratory doctors and technicians of the National Reference Laboratory (NRL) were the best prepared for the new pandemic. Specialized in TB diagnostic and monitoring, they were used to working with PCR tests, GeneXpert machines and in a level 3 biosafety environment. But they definitely didn’t expect such a huge workload.
Meerim started working on Covid-19 diagnostic in the NRL on April 24th and went home for the first time in months on August 17th. During the peak of the pandemic, she and her colleagues spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week locked up in the lab, using their last ounce of strength to help diagnose people both for Covid-19 and TB.
“When there were large arrivals from abroad, we would even go to the quarantine zone to take PCR-tests from every passenger. We would spend twelve hours in PPE doing the tests, then go back to the lab and work all night to analyze them,” she says.
Meerim is relieved that now, they finish working at around 3-4 a.m. and are able to get a couple of hours of sleep between each shift. Although it seems little, it’s much better than the situation at the peak of the pandemic, when NRL workers would go days without sleep. “It was a very stressful and emotional moment for us. And it’s not easy to skip nights. It affects your health and your work. But we did our best to help our people,” she says, “feeling alive” after a few nights at home. Thankfully, a few volunteers joined the ranks of the 25 employees of the NRL, helping them carry out their difficult but lifesaving tasks.
The National Reference Laboratory is the only lab in the country providing diagnosis for TB, and is now also one of the main labs for Covid-19 diagnosis. “The workload was huge. We would test up to 700 people per day for Covid-19 and had to continue to conduct tests for TB as well. It wasn’t hard to adapt to the new work, but we are exhausted. We wouldn’t sleep sometimes for several days in a row,” she says, showing us the tables they used as beds when they finally found the time to rest.
Rapid tests for Covid-19
Thanks to the help of donors, including the UNDP / Global Fund project, the NRL was already equipped to provide safe and quality diagnostic for Covid-19 and has all the necessary certifications. The UNDP / Global Fund project also purchased innovative rapid PCR-tests to fasten diagnostic.
“These tests give results in 45 minutes. Usual PCR tests for Covid-19 take around five hours,” explains Meerim. “They’re also much more sensitive because they can find dead cells. Results are 99% accurate.”
Demand for TB diagnosis however significantly fell during the peak of the pandemic, according to Meerim: “At one point we conducted zero TB tests. Overall, TB diagnostic fell by 70% approximately. It was very difficult for patients to seek medical care. But now we’re already back to our normal numbers, which are at around 100 TB tests per day.”
Now, the NRL staff is training employees of other laboratories around the country to conduct diagnostic tests for Covid-19 and prepare for a possible second wave.