Supporting the national COVID-19 diagnostic network

RT-PCR test for COVID-19 at the Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ruhuna



The Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ruhuna is actively contributing to the COVID-19 testing conducted by the Ministry of Health, Sri Lanka.
With the emergence of COVID-19 pandemic the Department of Microbiology has expressed the willingness to support COVID-19 RT-PCR testing to the Ministry of Health in late April 2020 in a time when country was in need of more RT-PCR machines.
The department was equipped with an RT-PCR machine donated by the Duke University US in 2017 as a part of Duke-Ruhuna Research Collaboration. But the department did not have the proper infrastructure to handle a highly infectious pathogen. Therefore, we had faced many difficulties in arranging the PCR laboratory. We have converted a student laboratory into an PCR extraction room and moved the only available Biosafety cabinet from the TB laboratory into this area along with all the necessary equipment from different areas in the department. A restricted path was created of entry with separate shoes and coats. The biosafety cabinet was serviced and checked for the efficacy as it was more than 15 years old. This was done by getting down an engineer from the company in the middle of the country lockdown by obtaining special permission. We have diverted consumables already in place for ongoing research into this with the kind permission of the Duke University. Professor Ajith Nagahawatte, Dr. Sunethra Gunasena and all the other academic and non-academic staff members of the Department of Microbiology contributed immensely to establish the COVID-19 RT-PCR test in the department. Further, many people outside the department including Dr. Nayomi Danthanarayana, the Consultant Virologist at Teaching Hospital Karapitiya helped in this process. Dr. Gayani Tilakeratne, Associate Professor in dDuke University, US and Dr. Brad Nicholson, the Director of the Molecular Epidemiology Research Laboratory at VA Medical Center, US provided online technical support and shipped us the PCR kits and consumables to initiate testing.
After completing the validation process, the department has been granted permission to perform the test on 14.05.2020. Thereafter it took some time to arrange consumables from the Medical Supplies Division and we have initiated testing patients’ samples since 19.06.2020. The Ministry of Health has requested us to contribute to the COVID-19 control activities by testing OPD surveillance samples in the Southern Province. Until December 2020 we have performed about 860 OPD surveillance samples sent by the all three districts in Southern Province. Since then with the rapid increase of cases across the country we were requested to increase the testing to incorporate patient samples. Mr. Nishantha Gunasekara, a technical officer in the Department of Microbiology had the expertise on molecular biological testing. He is the key person involved in the laboratory testing with the support of all the other technical officers, the supportive staff of the department and the Research Assistants from the Duke- Ruhuna Research Collaboration. Up to now we have tested 1220 samples including 78 positives and continued to provide the service to the Ministry of Health.
I would like to thank all the administrative and technical support provided by the Senior Professor Sujeewa Amarasena, the Vice Chancellor – University of Ruhuna, Professor Vasantha Devasiri, the Dean – Faculty of Medicine, all the members of the Department of Microbiology, all the officials at the Ministry of Health and the Consultant Virologist at the Teaching Hospital Karapitiya. I would also express my thanks to the Duke University US for providing the RT-PCR machine, consumables and technical expertise.
I would like to commend that the University of Ruhuna can be proud of this commitment made in supporting the national COVID-19 diagnostic network towards this endeavour.

Dr. Gaya Bandara Wijayaratne
Coordinator COVID testing
Department of Microbiology