The University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) has partnered with global healthcare company NovaMed in investigating a new, innovative high-throughput and cost-effective testing approach for COVID-19 to significantly increase Jamaica’s testing capacity.
The testing approach was developed by experts in Germany and used in testing efforts in Israel, Germany and India. The approach known as ‘pool-testing’ represents one of the most impactful innovations in traditional COVID-19 testing. Its goal is to be able to drive greater diagnostic output in the local COVID-19 response, and it is currently being investigated as a research project that could bolster testing output in Jamaica.
Dr Carl Bruce, medical chief of staff at the UHWI, said the new testing technique was very similar to a method used in laboratories in blood banks where blood samples are drawn into a single test-tube for speed screening.
“Following a similar procedure, pooled testing is done using highly sensitive tests to detect existing positive cases in a single test-tube of samples taken from groups of 30 patients,” Bruce said.
“If the group tests positive, the entire samples are retested individually. By retesting samples individually, it is easier to identify which of the collection tripped the test for the pooled sample.’’
Bruce said this method of pooling samples works well when there is a low prevalence of cases, meaning more negative results are expected than positive results.
Dr Alison Nicholson, head of the Department of Microbiology at the UHWI, said the pooled testing approach works well, considering the limited locally available resources.
“Our research into pooled testing has shone light on another way that our institution can increase the output from our laboratory,” Nicholson said.
The UHWI began investigating pooled testing in early July. The innovative throughput and cost-effective testing approach for COVID-19 has the potential to significantly reduce costs and increase testing capacity while offering faster turnaround time for results delivery.
The UHWI has responded to COVID-19 by leveraging knowledge, experts and innovation to assist the Caribbean in its readiness and response to the virus outbreak. Partnerships with the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) and private-sector entities such as NovaMed have been instrumental to national response efforts.
“Testing is key to identifying early and asymptomatic cases to be able to intervene and break the chains of transmission and as a resource-constrained state, we have to be aggressive in understanding our current caseload so we can respond accordingly.”David Walcott, co-founder of NovaMed
Novamed, launched by Dr David Walcott and entrepreneur Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, is a healthcare firm designed to drive health innovation in the Caribbean.
“NovaMed recognises the importance of testing as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19, and has been advocating for greater testing efforts in emerging markets,” Walcott said.
“This method could allow UHWI to conduct four times its daily testing capacity and theoretically save in excess of US$1 million over a couple of months using this approach.”
He added: “Testing is key to identifying early and asymptomatic cases to be able to intervene and break the chains of transmission and as a resource-constrained state, we have to be aggressive in understanding our current caseload so we can respond accordingly. The need for testing has increased with the increased caseload and different regions are investigating innovative approaches to bolster testing responses.”
The team highlighted that pooled testing is an important addition to the COVID-19 testing methods available locally, as it is an effective way to get the country closer to the goal of repeated testing that will help contain the spread of this relentless disease.
The team also commended the health ministry on a great job with testing, noting its recent approval of antigen tests.
“The new COVID-19 antigen test is an important advancement in our fight against COVID-19 because it will broaden the base for testing and help reduce the turnaround time within which test results are available,” Nicholson said.
“Antigen test results can be read in minutes, which means people will know if they have the virus in almost real time, and respond accordingly.”