Labs bemoan lack of facilities to detect variants


  • Jayewardenepura University only checking Colombo samples

  • No variant detection capacity at MRI/Health Ministry labs


By Buddhika Samaraweera and Pamodi Waravita


Emphasising that it is vital to identify variants of the Covid-19 virus, the Sri Lanka Association of Government Medical Laboratory Technologists (SLAGMLT) claimed that laboratories under the Health Ministry have not yet been provided with the necessary facilities to detect strains of Covid-19.

When contacted by The Morning, the Association’s President Ravi Kumudesh said that there is a high risk of new variants entering the country through foreigners arriving in the country. In this regard, he said that despite repeated requests to set up facilities at airports to conduct PCR tests which are also able to detect variants, facilities for such have not been provided thus far.

He noted that the results of the PCR tests of Ukrainians and Indians who had recently come to Sri Lanka as tourists and for quarantine purposes were conducted through private laboratories and claimed that the results of such tests were not reliable. At least some such individuals should have undergone gene sequencing, he opined.

Noting that only the Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Immunology and Molecular Medicine Department possess the facilities to conduct variant detection tests, Kumudesh said that only PCR samples taken from the Colombo District are however sent to the said Department. According to him, the samples taken from all other districts are being tested at the Medical Research Institute (MRI) and laboratories under the Health Ministry.

Speaking further, he added: “The relevant Department has the necessary facilities, and therefore the Indian variant was identified. However, if the relevant samples had been sent to the MRI or some other laboratory, it would not have been possible to perform a variant detection test. PCR samples in all other areas except the Colombo District are sent to the laboratories under the Health Ministry. Therefore, they too should be provided with the necessary facilities to detect variants.”

In response to various parties’ claims that tests to identify variants are expensive, Kumudesh said that it is now possible to carry out such tests at a lower cost using advanced technology. Many countries are conducting such tests, he pointed out.

He also added that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) had pointed out that it was important to conduct formal studies on the spread of Covid-19 variants in a particular country.

“Our country may be called a red zone due to not detecting the variants properly. Given the current number of PCR tests performed per month, at least 600 variant detection tests should be performed. But the Department is not capable of conducting such a number of tests,” he claimed, adding that if the consultants attached to the said University are temporarily attached to the MRI and the necessary facilities are provided to the MRI, they would be able to provide the necessary assistance to carry out variant detection tests.

Meanwhile, speaking to The Morning, Sri Jayewardenepura University Allergy, Immunology, and Cell Biology Unit Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara said that the SARS-CoV-2 nanopore sequencing technology has been established in the country for the first time, allowing rapid, low-cost sequencing to take place.

“This type of technology would deliver results about two days faster than the technology that we have right now,” noted Dr. Jeewandara.

He added that the next set of Covid-19 samples that the University has received will be sequenced from 29 June.

The Delta variant of Covid-19 (the Indian variant – B.1.617.2), which is said to be 50% more transmissible than the currently spreading Alpha variant (the UK variant – B.1.1.7), was detected for the first time in Sri Lanka from a community sample outside quarantine centres on 17 June. According to Dr. Jeewandara, the Delta variant had been detected from among five community samples obtained from the Dematagoda area in Colombo.

Also, taking into account the fact that the Delta variant, which was first detected in India, has spread to more than 80 countries, the Health Ministry recently hypothesised that it could have entered Sri Lanka through an infected person who came from such a country.

When contacted by The Morning to inquire about this, Health Ministry Communications Director, Public Health Services Deputy Director General, and Disaster Preparedness and Response Division Head Dr. Hemantha Herath explained two possible ways in which this variant could have entered Sri Lanka. Adding that Indians were barred from entering Sri Lanka only recently, Dr. Herath said that there was a possibility that this variant may have been transmitted from an Indian who had come to Sri Lanka earlier.

“This variant started spreading in India late last year. But Indians were barred from entering the country recently,” he elaborated.

“In addition, the Delta variant has now spread to more than 80 countries. Individuals from those countries came to Sri Lanka for various activities. It is also possible that this variant came to Sri Lanka through such a person,” he said, adding that investigations are being carried out to find out how this variant came to the country.

Speaking further, Dr. Herath said that it was not significantly important to identify the number of patients who have been infected with a particular variant of Covid-19. Gene sequencing should be performed on each Covid-19-infected patient to determine the exact number of patients with a particular variant, but this costs a lot of money and consumes time, he explained.

“However, future surveys will be able to indicate the number of individuals infected with a particular variant of Covid-19 as a percentage of the total number of those infected. Even in other parts of the world, the number of patients infected with each variant is not reported. But they mention it as a percentage following the conducting of surveys,” he mentioned.

Reiterating that it is not essential to find out the number of patients infected with this variant or how it came to the country, Dr. Herath said that any variant could be controlled if the people followed proper health guidelines.

“It is said that certain variants spread rapidly, but if the people follow health guidelines, such as wearing facemasks, washing hands, and keeping the social distance, the spread of all these variants can be brought under control.”

Attempts to contact Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Health Ministry Secretary Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe to inquire as to whether there are any plans to expand these facilities, were unsuccessful.