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Regional health expert provides testing boost

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A Pan American Health Organisation expert helped one of Bermuda's laboratories set up for coronavirus tests.

Lionel Gresh, of the PAHO Health Emergencies Department, said that a “good working relationship” continued with Helix Genetic and Scientific Solutions. Dr Gresh said that the fundamentals of the molecular or PCR — polymerase chain reaction — method used for testing were the same “whether you're trying to detect a bacteria or a virus or a human DNA”.

He added: “The core of skills you need were already present in country, right at the Helix lab.

“They already had the experience in working this type of technique, so it was the case where the amount of training that was needed was not as important as, for example, other countries where they're really building that capacity from scratch.”

Dr Gresh explained that travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic meant that he was unable to visit the island from PAHO headquarters in Washington after he made trips to help Barbados and Dominica in February.

He said that a request from Bermuda's Department of Health was made on about March 12 and that materials were shipped to the island before training was carried out remotely over two days.

David Burt, the Premier, announced on March 20 that on-island testing had started in a partnership between the Ministry of Health, Helix and the Bermuda Hospitals Board, with assistance from Public Health England and the PAHO.

Samples were earlier sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency in Trinidad to be tested, which meant a four to five-day wait for results.

Dr Gresh said that training by the PAHO, which operates like a regional office of the World Health Organisation, started in the Americas area before the end of January.

He explained that Covid-19 testing involved taking a “genetic fingerprint” of the virus using a machine and other specialist equipment.

Dr Gresh added: “We mostly provided countries with the specific ones — primers and probes — but also, depending on the countries, we have also provided some of the generic reagents, so countries could start the implementation of the testing without any delay.”

He said on Friday: “I think the most recent shipment we did to Bermuda was last week, so that's a process that we try to continue, to understand that procuring some of the reagents is complicated right now because also the demand, especially in the developed world, is very high and some of these reagents are in short supply.”

Dr Gresh added: “We have a very good working relationship with the team at the Helix lab, so we are in constant communication and they know they can reach us in case they feel they need some technical advice.”

Helix is owned and run by Desiree Spriggs.

She is assisted in the testing work by Marshalita Tota, the senior medical technologist and laboratory manager, as well as Rachel Parsons, a Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences microbiologist who uses a similar PCR instrument for her research into marine microbes.

BIOS said last week that the team was “working on implementing and validating testing kits and a new protocol, now accepted worldwide, that is more sensitive with regard to detecting Covid-19 infections”.

Dr Gresh, a virologist, said that the PAHO had not “been training directly” at the Bermuda Government Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory, which started operating just over a week ago and is run under the supervision of biochemist Carika Weldon.

He added: “We've been approached by the Government to review some of the protocols and so on, so that's a process that's ongoing.”

Dr Gresh said: “The decision on a particular lab to be declared fit for testing is not ours, it's really the local government's prerogative. We just try to provide as much training and share the knowledge we have to help them through that process.”

A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said last week that test kit manufacturers asked for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

She added: “Validations are then conducted by the user to ensure quality assurance within their testing facility.”

The spokeswoman said only FDA-approved kits were used. She added: “Each laboratory validates their own equipment. However, these validations are reviewed by third parties to ensure appropriate testing has occurred. Every laboratory writes a policy and procedure which begins from the collection of samples to processing and reporting. Both follow PAHO testing protocols.”

The health ministry did not respond to questions on who carried out the validation reviews.

True detective: forensic scientist Desiree Spriggs, the owner of Helix Genetic and Scientific Solutions, tests for molecular or polymerase chain reaction to diagnose the presence of the Covid-19 virus. Dr Spriggs is assisted in the testing work by Marshalita Tota, the senior medical technologist and laboratory manager, as well as Rachel Parsons, a Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences microbiologist who uses a similar PCR instrument for her research into marine microbes
Test, test, test: Lionel Gresh, of the Pan American Health Organisation emergencies department in Barbados, recently
True detective: Bermudian forensic scientist Desiree Spriggs, the owner of Helix Genetic and Scientific Solutions

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Published April 29, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated April 29, 2020 at 8:53 am)

Regional health expert provides testing boost

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