Coronavirus: UAE to introduce 20-minute tests to tackle cases faster

New techniques will significantly speed up results

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 26, 2020. 
  Dr. Stephan Weber  of the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City Covid-19 lab. 
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Shireena Al Nuwais

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New technology that can determine in just 20 minutes if a person has coronavirus will soon be available in the UAE.

Better analysis equipment will significantly cut diagnosis time, which is now between 24 and 48 hours.

Dr Stefan Weber, director of the National Influenza Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the ability to quickly test hundreds of swabs would boost efficiency and detection rates.

The equipment should arrive in the coming weeks, Dr Weber said. The machines are more efficient versions of what is currently available, into which swabs are inserted in batches.

The lab at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City tests up to 1,000 samples a day from around the emirates, as the country battles the spread of the virus.

What we want to see is a test that is fast and cheap

"What we want to see is a test that is fast and cheap," Dr Weber said during an exclusive tour of the facility for The National.

“Once these rapid test results are available, it will be the biggest relief.

"Then we can filter through many people and concentrate on a specific population, such as those recently exposed."

This month, the Ministry of Health and Prevention said 125,000 people had been tested and the number was likely to have grown since then.

According to Dr Weber, the new machines can be set to study the smallest samples of mucus and tissue for signs of Covid-19, the condition caused by the coronavirus.

And what used to take up three rooms "can now be analysed in a single chamber", Dr Weber said.

He expects them to be available “within the next two weeks".

“We don’t have a backlog of samples but unfortunately right now we are looking at two to three days maximum until the test results are out," he said.

The existing test will not change. It involves a long nasal swab inserted deep into a nostril and another wiped around the back of the throat.

“I tell nurses that I have to see tears in the eyes of the people screened,” Dr Weber said of the test process.

“As a rule of thumb, nasal swabs that measure half the distance from the tip of your nose to the tip of your ear, must be inserted into the nose.

"This is usually a shock to people but if you do not do it right, you might miss viral loads."

The government said anyone who has recently travelled to an outbreak hotspot, has come into contact with a confirmed case or who shows symptoms will be tested and treated free of charge.

Many hospitals have refused to test people with no symptoms or reason to be concerned. Others will perform the service for a charge. Some private labs can charge up to Dh800.

Doctors have urged people with colds or no symptoms of fever not to panic.

Governments around the world are looking to alternatives to ease the burden on state-owned health systems.

The British government bought 3.5 million home test kits this week, which would be distributed to the public through Amazon and pharmacist Boots.

The test involves pricking a finger and putting a drop of blood on to a testing device, in a process likened to a blood-sugar test.

It allows people to test themselves for signs of increased antibodies, which is a sign of the virus.

But Dr Weber said any tests conducted out of specialist laboratories and by experts may mean patients' infections go undetected.

"Some tests use blood but these are not reliable because they detect antibodies, which only develop later in the disease, as much as five days," he said.

"We would miss positive patients and that is not a risk we want to take. The test with the nasal swab is the better option.

“The problem with this disease is that just because you are negative today, it doesn’t mean you are negative next week or the next day.

"It is very important to not get a false sense of security."

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