By TANYA SMITH-CARTWRIGHT
The Bahamas, like the rest of the world, should realise by now that COVID-19 and its effects are going to be around for some time and as such we should be finding a way to live with it.
As we come out of yet another weekend lockdown designed to curtail the virus, citizens across the country continue to wonder if these lockdowns are really effective. The answer, according to many health experts - local and international - is lockdowns by themselves are not the answer without mass and continued testing alongside beefed-up contact tracing.
In the first months of the pandemic many countries ability to throw the switch on large scale testing - including our own - was hampered by the lack of testing kits available globally - and the money to buy them.
Suddenly every government wanted the same thing.
Former Health Minister Duane Sands told a local radio station last week: “We were trying to increase testing at time when it was incredibly difficult to get the resources needs, swabs, test kids, etc.
“We were pulling out all the stops to be able to continue the ability to test.”
Journalists covering the initially regular Ministry of Health press conferences frequently questioned officials on the scale of testing and why it wasn’t more widescale.
Two issues were at play. Firstly, getting control on the numbers within the local population and secondly - and crucially from an economic perspective - finding some way to check whether tourists coming into the country were carrying the virus.
As the summer months arrived - and with numbers relatively low - the government took the fateful decision to reopen our borders. Visitors would have to provide proof of being COVID-free on arrival. On the face of it, not such a difficult task but for many countries struggling to meet their own local demand for testing providing such proof for people just wanting to visit The Bahamas wasn’t the highest priority.
Locally, the COVID-free test was available but only through private facilities and with a test costing around $200 it put it beyond the reach of many people, particularly those who had been laid off or furloughed as a result of COVID.
The situation changed again - as we know to our cost - when Bahamians were allowed to travel out of the country on July 1, free to return within three days without any form of testing to prove they were still virus-free. Within weeks, the virus had exploded across the country.
As the weeks ticked by, however, the science in tackling COVID quietly moved on. You can go on Google at any point and read of advances in the battle against the virus. Vaccines are coming out of the laboratory and into human testing, possibly we’ll see the first being given out by Christmas.
It is these scientific advances which should give us hope that there is a way out of this disaster - and possibly not too long off.
When Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar somewhat optimistically set October 15 as the first date for tourists to return. The process for that deadline was dressed up not as quarantine but ‘Vacation in Place’ - in simple terms, get to your hotel and stay there. Needless to say, there was little sign of anyone arriving here last Thursday to take up D’Aguilar’s offer.
Significantly, though, it was what the government announced next which gives us hope.
Moving on from arriving here with a COVID-free certificate, the science has now advanced to the stage where instead of a 24-hour minimum wait for a laboratory test result the ability has arrived to carry out a quick 15-minute “antigen” test which gives a 95
percent accurate result on the presence of COVID.
The Tourism Ministry swiftly adapted its rules to announce that from November 1 it would be bringing in the rapid test for visitors which would be followed up five days after arrival to prove the traveller was still COVID-free.
If that’s acceptable for tourists, then why not everyone else? Instead of being ordered to stay locked indoors for a fortnight because a colleague or relative is affected, why couldn’t people be subjected to the same rapid testing and at a fraction of the cost demanded before?
Exactly this opportunity was seized on as The Tribune reported late last month when Robert Myers, principal of the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), unveiled the new Live with COVID Coalition (LWCC).
Meyers said the Coalition has access to some 70,000 antigen COVID-19 World Health Organisation and Federal Drug Administration approved testing kits. Although 70,000 seems to be a far cry from what is needed to start up constant and aggressive testing, Meyers said he will use this amount to lead a “faster path to recovery” from the pandemic.
The ORG principal said the coalition’s test will be affordable, providing results within 15 minutes as opposed to the quickest available before this which is results in around 24 hours. The cost will between $13.50 and $18 per go. It is alleged a well-known health official is backing the coalition’s programme.
Then just last week, Dynamic Health Services Ltd, another company, stepped forward hoping to make a difference with testing. It announced it had secured an exclusive agreement with Abbot Rapid Diagnostics and their affiliated partners to be able to distribute millions of PANIBIO COVID-19 Ag RAPID TEST devices to residents and visitors.
DHS touts this test as the way forward to some semblance of normalcy.
“Through its agreement with Abbot, DHS has secured an option to purchase up to six million of these branded rapid antigen tests, and has negotiated a cost that would allow the test to be administered for a price that is affordable for all Bahamians and residents,” said DHS CEO Dr Tyneil Cargill.
The PANBIO device is said to be one of only two “point of use” rapid test kits which have received WHO’s pre-qualification. The device requires no instrumentation and like the Coalition’s test, the result is available in 15 minutes. Costs are similar - expected to be between $10 and $25 a time. Canada is purchasing some 20 million unites of the PANBIO test.
Compared with “Vacation in Place”, you can see how we are starting to be in a much better place. Practically speaking, however, there is still some way to go as how long will people’s patience last when they are forced to queue for their turn to take rapid test and then wait 15 minutes for the result before taking their seat in a restaurant, cinema or getting through customs?
Once again, however, science appears to be coming to our aid.
Israeli scientists have now successfully developed a “spit test” which brings the whole process down to a matter of seconds.
The inventor of this test is Virusight Diagnostic, a company owned by Sheba Medical Center and Eli Assoolin. This form of testing is also being carried out in 12 hospitals around the world.
This test is very simple. A harmless solution is handed to a traveller - or it could be an employee here in The Bahamas. The solution is swished around in the mouth and spat out into a tube which is put in a machine. The results are returned in 20 seconds and are almost 100 percent accurate. If the result is positive, then normal isolation protocols would be implemented.
This test is now being trialled in London’s Heathrow Airport and in countries in Europe.
According to a well-placed source in the Ministry of Health, the government and the Prime Minister of The Bahamas have been screening companies for the viable way forward when it comes to rapid and consistent COVID-19 testing. They are interested in a multi-faceted approach to fighting COVID-19.
“An exercise was carried out recently, where we went to a local restaurant and we carried out COVID-19 tests using various types of tests,” the source said.
“There is no one-solution that fits all criteria. We did the testing to see how it would hold up in a real world scenario. The answer was that there was some amazing responses that I had not considered. And, that was the emotional release knowing that everyone was able to sit down at the table and take off their masks and be normal.
“The downside of that test was that it took on average 20 minutes. I knew right away that type of test would not work in that type of environment or a movie theatre or a pub. It has its limitations but an antigen test is a good test. Using a test like that at an airport is insane. I would think that the best one is the breathalyzer or the gargle and spit test. They are most accurate.”
Another upside is the result could be uploaded on to a governments-approved app which would work like a passport - presented to Customs and Immigration showing the passenger is safe to travel and enter the country.
The Health Ministry source continued, “If you don’t have testing, then I call it collective suicide. I am of the opinion that if The Bahamas wants to open the nation back up, there is only one way we can do it. That way is to make sure we have the necessary testing. In order to make sure that we can do whatever it is we wish to do to open various sectors of the economy.”
The Tribune reached out to the Office of the Prime Minister for commentary, but was ushered to the Ministry of Health. The Minister of Health was then contacted by a message which phone protocols indicated he read, but gave no response.
Whatever the way forward whereas testing in The Bahamas is concerned, time, accuracy and large quantity are the key components to success.
Science - as it has done throughout modern history - also has a giant role to play.