Exactly a year ago, on 22 January 2020, the first suspicious sample that may have contained the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived at the National Reference Center (NRC) for influenza at the ÚVZ SR.
At this time, the Public Health Office was still preparing the diagnostics and the laboratory was not yet able to reliably analyze the samples.
The very first samples were sent to Charité in Berlin, which is the reference laboratory for the diagnosis of coronaviruses of the World Health Organization (WHO).
“This Berlin laboratory, led by Professor Christian Drosten, developed the first coronavirus diagnostics and provided it to partner laboratories around the world. We also followed this WHO protocol, “explains Dr. Edita Staroňová, Head of the National Reference Center for Influenza.
It was Dr. Staroňová together with Dr. Elena Tichá who played a key role in introducing diagnostics in our laboratory. They communicated with Berlin and together with Dr. Jana Gőczeová from the Laboratory of Molecular Diagnostics of the Institute of Molecular Diagnosis of the Slovak Statistical Office were the first to run COVID-19 diagnostics in Slovakia.
Why do “flu” oversee COVID?
At first glance, it may sound strange that the NRC for influenza is being taken by the coronavirus: COVID-19 is nevertheless caused by a different type of virus. However, this decision was completely natural given the circumstances.
At the beginning of 2020, there was no necessary network of workplaces focused on coronaviruses around the WHO. The natural and fastest solution, therefore, was for the National Reference Centers for Influenza to automatically address COVID-19 as well, as it is also a respiratory viral disease.
“Diagnostics is basically a classic RT-PCR method. We received a special protocol within the WHO network. It disclosed primer sequences that specifically target the pathogen causing COVID-19. The primers can capture a specific area of a given virus in a sample and, based on that, the patient can be diagnosed with the disease. Their synthesis takes about one to two weeks and we already had the rest of the necessary chemicals in the laboratory, “said Dr. Staroňová.
Within twelve days from the first suspicious sample, the diagnostics could be started directly in the NRC. “For the first time, we examined the samples directly at our place on February 3. We knew that sooner or later we would catch a patient and the disease would be confirmed in Slovakia as well, “says Dr. Staroňová.
They see individuals behind the samples
In the laboratory, they remember exactly the moment when they managed to diagnose the first positive patient. It was March 6, 2020.
“As soon as we confirmed the result several times and were sure of its correctness, we reported it to the chief hygienist. He immediately wondered how the patient was doing, as he had already been hospitalized. There were times when there were not so many samples, so we finally called this patient. We informed the then Prime Minister, and a press release and announcement to the public followed, “Dr. Staroňová describes the sequence of events.
Even today, when there are incomparably more samples, they can still see individuals behind the samples in the laboratory. They have not lost contact with the outside world, because if people for various reasons fail to get a result, they often call directly to the NRC.
“At the beginning, we did not assume that the majority of the population would gradually encounter this diagnosis and that it would be so massive. We relied on the experience of previous coronavirus epidemics, SARS and MERS, that there would be several imported cases from abroad. We did not expect that this would eventually be a pandemic, “recalls the expert.
Experts have created a network in the future
When building effective diagnostics, it was the most difficult to set up the laboratory so that it could respond to a huge demand. So that the original superstructure activity becomes a routine. “We were not prepared for such a large daily volume of samples from the beginning. It was necessary to equip the laboratory so that we could process them in the staff we have, “says Dr. Staroňová, adding that they had to come up with a solution immediately. The NRC was on its own for diagnosis in March, while the samples had to be diagnosed en masse and quickly.
“We have never experienced such an onslaught before. Although we remember the flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010, it was far from it, compared to today, we diagnosed perhaps a tenth of the samples. At that time, dozens of samples were taken daily, now hundreds go daily, “the expert explains the seriousness of the situation in which they suddenly found themselves.
Gradually, however, the first three regional offices in Košice, Trenčín and Banská Bystrica were added. In mid-April, private laboratories began to join. Regional offices in Komárno, Nitra, Poprad and Žilina are already involved in diagnostics.
However, the hectic and extremely exhausting year of our laboratory staff has brought more than effective and reliable diagnostics. “We have established new collaborations, we have met with public and private laboratories, as well as with scientists. If we didn’t know about each other before, but before the pandemic, many laboratories competed in principle with each other. Now we all had to start working together. Today, a network between laboratories has already been created, and if a new disease appears sometime in the future, we can work together again, ”concludes Dr. Staroňová.
Source: Daša Račková, spokesperson of the Public Health Office of the Slovak Republic
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