How rapid COVID-19 specimen transport improves public health

How rapid COVID-19 specimen transport improves public health
Aug 17, 2021
Infectious disease specialists overcome challenges to collecting and transporting COVID-19 test specimens in 14 countries
The collection of biological specimens is the most important step in the diagnosis of infectious diseases in communities. And when faced with geographic, transportation, security, and other challenges, it’s crucial to have the right people with the right training and the right equipment to ensure the process is managed safely and effectively. Especially when dealing with a disease as contagious and deadly as COVID-19.

We have a long history of partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on multiple surveys and projects. Through our Infectious Disease Detection and Surveillance (IDDS) – Global Health Security project, we're helping strengthen public health diagnostic networks, laboratory systems, and surveillance mechanisms to detect and monitor infectious diseases in developing countries.

Accelerating test results in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, we were tasked with collecting and transporting COVID-19 specimens across the country—including in the capital Dhaka, a vast metropolis home to 21 million people and the country’s highest number of reported cases.

Getting around the city in a timely fashion is very difficult. But time is of the essence when you need to quickly identify positive cases, immediately isolate patients to contain infection, and provide critical medical care.
“We needed to reduce transport and testing time so people could get their results as soon as possible and the health system as whole could respond quickly and effectively,” says our infectious disease advisor Chana Rabiner, who leads the COVID-19 response for IDDS.

For this daunting task, we engaged a team of specimen collectors through the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) in Bangladesh. We trained them on how to collect good specimens—quickly, efficiently, and safely. With staff in place, we helped significantly increase IEDCR’s capacity for sample collection. In less than 20 days, we supported the collection and transport of nearly 600 samples, 98 percent of which made it to IEDCR’s lab within the same day.

“We supported dedicated technicians and vehicles to improve and expand specimen transfer that significantly helped contain the transmission in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Krishnapada Chakraborty, our IDDS team lead in Bangladesh.

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Navigating safety issues in the Philippines

The Philippine’s region of Mindanao presented its own challenges, not just with transport infrastructure with miles between communities and test laboratories, but security and safety issues as well. “In early 2020, we were looking at a three-day transport time or more,” continues Chana. “We needed an innovative solution that took into the account the dangers posed to collectors in the region.”

We developed a transport relay system at a regional border, using unmarked vehicles to avoid unwanted attention. Coupled with training for both transport and lab staff and the purchase of crucial supplies, we significantly reduced the specimen transport time—from three days to three hours!

“Our transport model proved so popular that local governments in the Philippines are looking to replicate it in new areas of the country.” — Chana Rabiner

Decentralizing testing and diagnosis in India

Our COVID-19 response methods are now leading to similar operations in new countries. In June 2021, we began COVID-19 response in India, where the Delta variant had caused a major public health crisis. Our support to the Ministry of Health in India now focuses on decentralization access to timely and accurate testing and diagnosis.

“Being entrusted to begin operations beyond our original countries speaks volumes about the success of our strategy,” said Chana. “We’re honored to be part of the global response to help mitigate this global pandemic.”