The first case of Covid-19 in South Africa was confirmed yesterday afternoon.
Being a microbiologist, and having contacts within the healthcare and diagnostic pathology communities, I have managed to get an exclusive actual picture of the test which was used to confirm the infection.
Let me take you through what’s going on here, and how testing for Covid-19 works.
First, you take a purple-topped tube with EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) added. This additive acts as a potent anti-coagulant and immediately ruins any chance of you getting any viral serology result.
The lab won’t waste their time on it and will send you a sarcastic message.
Anyway. Let’s pretend it might still work. (It won’t.)
Fill the tube with blood from the patient and send it off to your local micro lab.
At the lab, the first thing they’ll do is to take a big sticker with a generic and meaningless name of a family of viruses on it, and apply it to the tube.
Once this is done – and before any blood has been removed from the tube – the most junior member of the lab (generally the only one who still has enough enthusiasm to own a red pen) will be asked to look at the blood in the tube and see if s/he can see any viruses. If they can see past the big sticker and there are viruses in there (or if the lab staff have sensibly invested in hand sanitiser stocks and need some extra cash in hand), then the patient is clearly infected.
If not, then there’s still the chance that the patient might have the virus, but that the lab assistant had a bit of a heavy night the night before and thus can’t really focus on the task at hand.
With such a binary decision laid down before us, it’s time to toss a coin.
Heads is positive and tails is negative.
(Or is it the other way around?
I never can remember – it’s been a long time since I had a red pen.)
When this has been done, the lab rat will tick the appropriate box on the label, take a photo with the tube and then phone the Department of Health.
Depending on the result, chaos may ensue.
By not taking any of the useless blood out of the tube, there’s no danger of any laboratory staff getting infected while processing a specimen which you put in the wrong tube anyway. The patient gets their result – confirmed with a tick on the outside of the tube – together with a potentially fatal viral infection to go along with the happier memories of their recent holiday in Italy.
Everyone’s a winner.