By Lindsey Turnbull
The past few weeks have been endlessly stressful for many people on island wishing to obtain a rapid antigen test (lateral flow test or LFT) to meet government’s new requirements for at-home testing of Covid-19, but, thankfully, this anxiety will soon be averted, as the Caribbean authorised distributor for PCR and rapid antigen tests, located here in the Cayman Islands, is about to take delivery of a large number of tests. Bulk purchases mean cheaper and far more easily accessible rapid testing.
Cheri Langston, a sales consultant for Caribbean Diagnostics Ltd, supplies medical equipment and diagnostic testing for laboratories and clinics all over the Caribbean. Ms Langston has had around 17 years’ experience in PCR testing, working as a molecular biologist within the field of forensics in the US and seven years in forensics at the HSA here in Cayman. She left forensics as a career change around nine months before the pandemic, recruited based on her background to start diagnostic PCR of HIV, Zika, etc., the same type of equipment that is used in the PCR testing of Covid-19.
“We were already getting a lot of interest in diagnostic PCR prior to the pandemic for medical labs and had already set up multiple labs throughout the region, so they were able to get started up straight away [for PCR testing] when the pandemic hit,” she advised.
During the past 18 months or so, the company has been very busy with Covid testing throughout the Caribbean.
“The other islands realised they couldn’t stay closed forever due to rising crime rates from job loss with loss of tourism,” Ms Langston confirmed. “But what started to be a trend was that most of the islands that only had a government lab doing the testing realised really early on that they could not keep up once they started opening up to tourism, so they had to allow private labs to test and allow it to be a fee for service,” she said.
Public labs could therefore continue to deal with public health issues such as symptomatic outbreaks, while private labs were allowed to profit from tourism and travel-related testing. Private labs had been vetted by their governments and were able to prove that they met sufficient standards.
Ms Langston’s role in this was training labs across the Caribbean to undertake PCR testing, not only lab technicians but physicians running practices as well. Along with her specialisation in PCR testing, Ms Langston said having taught as an adjunct professor in Biology in the US meant she was in a good position to train.
The demand for testing went up rapidly as the pandemic hit.
“We were sending ten thousand PCR tests at a time to other Caribbean islands, even other UK territories,” she advised. “We had quite a few very well-known brands. A published study by the Dutch Ministry of Health looked at the top seven PCR brands that supply kits for Covid Testing, as well as multiple other pathogens and we supplied four of them.”
Suite of rapid antigen tests
Caribbean Diagnostics were not only supplying other Caribbean islands with PCR testing and expertise, they also supplied a suite of rapid antigen testing, including a more sensitive in-clinic version, as well as a very rapid instrument test that could be used in airports. In particular, they are the Caribbean distributor for the ACON rapid antigen tests, a brand specifically required by the Cayman Islands government in its regulations on brands permitted.
Using the official distributor of such diagnostic equipment is extremely important, she said, because the kits are shipped directly from the manufacturer to the end user. This therefore avoids the possibility of these sensitive tests being mishandled on their journey and possibly exposed to heat while waiting to be loaded in a cargo hold when transferred from elsewhere. It also prevents the possibility of fraudulent kits being circulated, when the official distributor has control over shipment. A random sampling of ACON rapid antigen tests in Cayman revealed that some of the tests’ lot numbers could not be tracked by the manufacturer and could therefore be fraudulent. (The manufacturer used the words “possibly re-worked”.) Ensuring that only pharmacies, clinics and hospitals sold the test kits (as in the UK) and purchased from a reputable supplier or directly was the only way to confirm their validity, she said.
To meet specific guidelines on the transportation of the tests, Caribbean Diagnostics, the only authorised vendor of ACON rapid antigen tests in the Cayman Islands and other regions of the Caribbean, organise the tests to be shipped directly from the manufacturer in China and then distributed directly to countries in the Caribbean. They are not transported to a third party unless authorised by ACON.
Caribbean Diagnostics are shipping in thousands of tests for purchase in the very near future and because they buy directly from the manufacturer without the cost involved in shipping erroneously elsewhere, Ms Langston said they will be about half the cost of the ones currently in stores across Cayman.