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Covid-19 or HIV? It will detect it faster

With the number of Covid-19 infections set to go up, the country’s acquisition of this new piece of equipment couldn’t be more timely. The machine, referred to as the DNA Technology Real-time thermo-cycler, was acquired by Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) just over two weeks ago. It will speed up the processing of samples ultimately aiding the fight against coronavirus. It is said to have the capacity to process 2,000 samples in a day.   

The DNA Technology Real-time thermo-cycler is an important equipment applied in microbiology, oncology and gene therapy. It has become the standard method for disease detection due to its ability to do polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

Since KNH started Covid-19 testing on April 14 this year, the hospital has done over 5,000 tests and trained 20 laboratory technologists to do the tests. With the new acquisition, KNH CEO Dr Evanson Kamuri says the new machines will “double our testing capacity and increase the turnaround time.”

Testing for HIV in babies

And even when the pandemic is over, the machines will be useful in testing for HIV-1 in infants. Usually, the biggest concern is delayed treatment brought about by late diagnosis, leading to death of the babies. Without treatment, 52 per cent of HIV infected infants die by age two. The new machines will help in early diagnosis and treatment of HIV infection in infants thereby greatly reducing mortality rates associated with delayed treatment.

When a baby (foetus) is still in the womb, it depends on its mother’s immunity to fight diseases. Newborns usually lack their own antibodies and need time to develop their immunity therefore ruling out the use of antigen-antibody tests to detect viral diseases.

HIV testing on HIV exposed infants (HEI) is thus done in stages starting with a PCR test when a baby is 6-8 weeks old. Other tests are done in six-month intervals and “until a baby is at least 2-years-old is when you can get the exact result,” says Nancy Otin, a neonatal nurse.

How is this technology faster?

In simple terms, PCR is a scientific technique that makes copies of one’s DNA making it easier to study for diseases. PCR can even make millions of copies from DNA helping in the detection and diagnosis of infectious diseases even when the source DNA is of relatively poor quality. It is also very quick and inexpensive.

The machines which each have the capacity to process 2,000 samples a day will also be instrumental in any DNA/RNA testing post Covid-19 and especially in testing of HIV-1 in infants.

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