As many of us chill out, read a good book or play casino games on our desktop or device there is a small army of health care professionals prepping for the worst-case scenario in the battle against Covid-19. Right now, South Africa is waging the war on two fronts – a mandatory 21-day lockdown and the mass screening and testing of people living in virus hotspots.
Testing has become the rallying cry in nations that have successfully managed to lower the infection and mortality rates. It has also become the best course of action as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The first question is: how does screening and testing help flatten the curve? The second, more important question is: does South Africa have the resources to tackle a virus that’s been called everything under the sun, from a SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic to a Corona beer virus with fangs?
Early Detection and Isolation is Critical
According to the healthcare gurus, the best way to dampen the spread of infection is through early detection, immediate isolation, and trace and track protocols.
In layman’s terms that means screening as many people as you can and testing the folk who fulfil the screening criteria. In other words, in a perfect world, we would have to set the casino games aside and line up – practicing adequate social distancing of course – to have our temperatures taken and answer a barrage of questions.
Those of us who had travelled overseas, come into contact with people who had travelled overseas, registered an abnormal temperature, or exhibited any of the symptoms associated with the virus would be tested on the spot.
Positive results would mean immediate self-isolation and the instant deployment of a team to track, trace and test all persons that you have come into contact with.
Widespread Testing is Logistically Difficult in South Africa
In the real world, however, that is not financially or logistically possible. Right now, there are more than 57 million people living in South Africa. Many are in cramped and unhygienic conditions in informal settlements and remote rural areas, with others in high-tech homes with all the creature comforts – and Springbok Casino games on tap.
Consider the fact that there are only a few thousand medical professionals who have the know-how and skill sets to do the job, and the problem seems insurmountable. Then, of course, there are global shortages of protective gear, testing kits, ventilators and beds to compound an already dire situation.
The Upside to Virus Detection – Portable Testing Machines
Believe it or not, there is an upside to how South Africa is managing the deadly, albeit poorly named, beer coronavirus. Although we do not have the personnel or resources to roll out widespread testing, we do have the technology to identify high-risk hotspots, and the machines to expedite the virus detection process.
The high rate of TB in the country may prove to be a godsend as South Africa has several TB testing machines that have already been adapted to test for Covid-19. These machines are reasonably lightweight and portable and can easily be deployed to remote and hard to reach places.
They use PCR or ‘polymerase chain reaction’ technology to detect the virus itself. The process involves taking a nasal or oral swab and using the machine to identify the virus. Although PCR tests are highly efficient, it can take up to 48 hours before the results are known. That said, this is already an improvement on the initial two-week backlog on delivering results that the country’s laboratories faced in early stages.
More Weapons in South Africa’s Arsenal
There is a second weapon in South Africa’s testing arsenal – a test that is quicker, cheaper and easier to conduct and evaluate. This test is called the rapid antibody test (RAT) and it detects the presence of antibodies in the body, rather than the virus itself.
What are antibodies? They are proteins produced by the body to assist the immune system in exposing and eliminating threats – just like Covid-19. Another way to phrase that is that antibodies are nature’s way of weaponizing the body against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Blood and Dipstick-Based Rapid Antibody Test
The RAT is a blood and dipstick-based test that provides results in a matter of minutes. It can be conducted by nurses and doctors absolutely anywhere and is super effective at identifying people who have mild infections – or are asymptomatic, but still infectious.
What is helpful about the RAT is it can identify people who at some point have been exposed to the virus but are no longer sick. That makes it much easier for the authorities to map the infection and pinpoint the communities that are experiencing rapid contagion.
While the RAT is great at identifying people who have successfully fought off the disease, it is not that effective at tracing the early stages of infection. Why? Well, the body only starts producing antibodies after about five to 14 days of being infected – and that is at the height of the infection cycle.
Testing for Antibodies in the Trial Phase
At this point of time, the authorities are using rapid antibody testing on a trial basis. Once they have collected sufficient data to determine the efficacy of the test in diagnosing the coronavirus, they will either roll it out across the country, or reject it and explore other options.
All this is quietly going on in the background as the rest of us take a protracted break, albeit an enforced one. The next time you stream a Netflix movie, delve into a bestseller or load RTG casino games onto your phone, spare a thought for the thousands of people who are working around the clock to protect us all!
Play Casino Games, Stay Put, Reduce the Spread
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