Volunteers are needed for a test to check the effectiveness of covid-19 rapid tests. 

The Wits University department of immunology is calling for 300 volunteers to participate in their ongoing covid-19 rapid test study. 

The study, led by principal investigator, Elizabeth Mayne (40), is testing the effectiveness of covid-19 rapid testing methods currently available in South Africa. Mayne is the head of the department of immunology at Wits and a practicing pathologist at the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS). 

She explains that rapid tests are attractive because they yield instant results but the accuracy of the tests vary. 

“The problem with the rapid tests is that not all of them work very well. Some of these tests are only accurate thirty percent of the time. There are over a hundred suppliers of these rapid tests. We are trying to decide which of these rapid tests is worth investing in,” says Mayne.

Ashlyn Job (27), a pediatric medical officer, has volunteered to be a part of this study after she tested positive for covid-19. After developing a cough and experiencing shortness of breath, Job got tested for the first time on Tuesday, March 24. Her test was conducted at a Lancet Laboratories mobile testing station at the Union Netcare Hospital in Germiston. A nurse, in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), took a throat swab through Jobs’ car window.

“I was already in isolation by this time, but I only got the test result back after six days,” Job told Wits Vuvuzela.

Rapid test screenings are currently being carried out by the NHLS and other private laboratory services who have established mobile sites around the country. 

After 19 days of isolation, Job got tested by her general practitioner who took a blood sample and used a point-of-care immunodiagnostic kit. The test strip rendered no result making it futile. 

Mayne warns against using these rapid tests as “immunity passports.” 

“You could be spreading the virus around and only test positive afterwards.” she adds. 

The study aims to test both serological and antibody testing methods – especially those used in point-of-care immunodiagnostic kits. Serological and antibody tests form the basis of checking for infectious diseases such as covid-19. These tests include blood and saliva samples. 

For the study, a nurse is sent to the volunteer’s place of residence to take mouth and throat swabs for saliva collection, as well draw a small sample of blood.

Potential volunteers include people who are experiencing symptoms relating to covid-19, have been around somebody experiencing these symptoms or have recently travelled out of the country. Over 35 participants have volunteered since the announcement was made on Friday May 1. It is important to note that volunteers will not receive their results.  

“No decision can be made on the basis of these tests. The point of the study is to see if the tests work,” says Mayne. 

Collected samples are being tested at the NHLS in Braamfontein and at the Immunohematology Laboratory at the Wits medical school. Mayne states that her team intends on using this study for practical services. 

“We will be sharing the information we have as widely as possible. Our study is conducted purely to inform the national testing programme. This is not the time to be academically territorial about your work,” says Mayne. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that point-of-care immunodiagnostic kits should be used for research purposes only and not for clinical decision making. Studies focused on testing the effectiveness of covid-19 rapid tests are being conducted all over the world. John Hopkins University, based in the United States of America, and the University of South Wales, based in the United Kingdom, are also researching the effectiveness of portable covid-19 rapid tests. In China, the Nankai University is developing testing kits that provide results in under fifteen minutes. 

Mayne adds that all recommended safety precautions against covid-19 still remain in place and that the department has set up a call centre for willing volunteers. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits department of immunology calls for 300 volunteers to participate in covid-19 rapid test study. PHOTO: Laura Hunter.