SA to process 36,000 Covid-19 tests a day by end of April

The National Health Laboratory Service will increase the number of laboratories performing Covid-19 tests from six to nine.
The National Health Laboratory Service will increase the number of laboratories performing Covid-19 tests from six to nine.
Image: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) is stepping up its efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus by increasing the number of laboratories performing Covid-19 tests from next month from six to nine.

CEO Dr Kamy Chetty said the organisation has adequate testing capacity and equipment to meet the demand.

“The NHLS is pursuing various sources of supplies to obtain polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based test kits and has a commitment from suppliers that South Africa will be a priority,” said Chetty.

Currently, the NHLS has six laboratories performing Covid-19 tests. It said the number will increase to nine by April this year.

At present, the NHLS has the capacity to process 5,000 samples in a 24-hour period. This number will increase to 15,000 in 24 hours in April. By the end of April, the NHLS will be able to process approximately 36,000 tests in 24 hours.

The NHLS has 18 state-of-the-art Cobas 6800 and 8800 machines that will dramatically improve the volumes that can be processed, as well as the turnaround time.

Chetty said the NHLS also has over 180 GeneXpert analysers, which will be available in all provinces for testing by April.

She said the test kit for the GeneXpert was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week, and the company has started production. The test kits are due to arrive in April.

“The advantage, according to the supplier, is that tests can be processed in 45 minutes, and the smaller machines can be placed in mobile vehicles, which makes it ideal for community testing,” she said.

She said it was a pity that this new test kit was not available sooner, as it would have made a huge difference in how testing is done.

"We are nevertheless pleased that it will be ready shortly.”

The six laboratories that are currently conducting tests are the NHLS National Institute for Communicable Diseases and Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital (both in Gauteng), Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals (in the Western Cape), Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital (KwaZulu-Natal) and Universitas Hospital (in the Free State).

The facilities that will start testing shortly are: 

  • Tshwane Academic Hospital in Gauteng; 
  • Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital, in the Eastern Cape; and
  • Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital, also in the Eastern Cape.

In addition to the six testing sites, the NHLS has deployed six mobile laboratories to collect samples for testing: one in the Western Cape, two in the Free State, two in Gauteng and one in Kwazulu-Natal.

The NHLS said 20 more mobile vehicles have been procured and will be deployed in April.