Over 9 mn PCR and Antigen tests since March 2020

DG, Laboratory Services denies manipulating Covid-19 testing strategy

By Shamindra Ferdinando 

Dr. Sudath Dharmaratne, Deputy DG, Laboratory Services, says contrary to accusations by various interested parties, PCR and Rapid Antigen testing were being carried out according to a plan in line with the country’s response to the Covid-19 challenge.

Dr. Dharmaratne said so when The Island sought his response to allegations that the Health Ministry restricted PCR testing in a bid to artificially bring down the number of positive cases.

The top health ministry official said that currently priority was given to Rapid Antigen testing as they battled the rapid spread of the epidemic, particularly the Delta variant. In spite of initial difficulties experienced in the wake of Covid-19 eruption, the state laboratory services with the support of private labs were able to meet the challenging task, Dr. Dharmaratne said.

The assurance was given in the wake of the GMOA meeting new health minister Keheliya Rambukwella to discuss ways and means of strengthening the government’s response to the Covid-19 challenge.

Dr. Dharmaratne said that overall nearly 5 mn PCR tests had been conducted since March 2020 with the state sector undertaking the majority of tests. The private sector operated nine labs whereas the government managed 31 facilities. According to Dr. Dharmaratne state-owned facilities consisted of 22 with the health ministry, seven with higher education ministry and two with the Defence sector.

Responding to another query, Dr. Dharmaratne said that the health ministry enhanced the capacity of the existing state-owned facilities in addition to setting up several new labs a few months ago. “We are in the process of establishing four new labs at Ampara, Vavuniya, Polonnaruwa and Vathupitiwela,” Dr. Dharmaratne said, assuring the public of uninterrupted services regardless of the developing crisis.

Asked to explain, Dr. Dharmaratne pointed out that the sudden explosion in the epidemic prompted a review of the testing strategy. It wouldn’t be fair under any circumstances to reach unsubstantiated conclusion the health ministry had drastically reduced the number of PCR tests in a bid to give false sense of security to the public. “The current requirement is to identify those who had been affected as quickly as possible hence the increase in much faster Rapid Antigen tests,” Dr. Dharmaratne said.

The senior official said that still substantial number of PCR tests had been carried out on a monthly basis though compared to 700,000 done in May the figure could be less. Commenting on Rapid Antigen testing lunched in last Nov, Dr. Dharmaratne said that the Medical Supplies Division had so far issued approximately 5 mn kits whereas one mn stock remained. According to him, more stocks were in the pipe line and the health ministry didn’t anticipate shortage of required materials.

Dr. Dharmaratne emphasized that the challenge faced by the health sector was enormous. “We didn’t anticipate a scenario here similar to a global pandemic. The detection of Covid-19 patients is as important as the vaccination drive,” Dr. Dharmaratne said, urging the public not to rush for PCR and Antigen tests unless advised by health authorities.

Acknowledging that the steady rise in the number deaths and positive cases was a cause for serious concern, Dr. Dharmaratne requested the public to have faith in the public health system. The official pointed out that far bigger countries with much stronger economies too faced unbearable pressure.  Dr. Dharmaratne said that Sri Lanka with the support received from various countries, organizations as well as individuals sustained the campaign against Covid-19.

Declining to name any party that had hindered their efforts, Dr. Dharmaratne urged the health sector to unite whatever the existing differences to defeat the life threatening epidemic.


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