CHENNAI: These are testing times for humanity, thanks to the pandemic. Around the world, multiple groups of people have been waging a tough battle to contain the virus -- scientists, doctors, paramedics, and even the police forces. But, one group that gets too close for comfort with the virus as part of their job, and still does not get enough credit for it, is the microbiologists. Those conducting RT-PCR tests on Covid samples have a life far from ordinary these days. Without them, all our efforts to fight the virus could fail.
“In the last eight months, we have been doing a whopping 2,000 RT-PCR tests each day,” says doctor Chandrasekar, assistant professor of microbiology at the Stanley Medical College Hospital. “The average in normal times is around a 1,000 tests per day.” Express caught up with a team of microbiologists at Stanley, to find out how they have been coping with the extreme stress induced by the pandemic. The stories they had to say were varied in emotions.
“The microbiologists used to work from 10am to 4pm,” says doctor Dillirani, head of the microbiology department at Stanley. “But now, things have changed completely. The staff have been divided into three shifts -- 10 members per shift -- that work on a rotational basis throughout the day,” she says. The real challenge, however, was learning to spot the virus that was never tested before.
“We are familiar with bacterial culture, pathogen identification, dengue tests, and even HIV tests. But, this was something new. It took some time but we quickly adapted to the situation,” says Dillirani. On top of it, everything is being watched and monitored for transparency. “The test results are very sensitive. We are mandated to upload it on the ICMR website and Chennai Corporation portal.
They need accurate data for contact tracing, containment activities, and for other medical activities.” Till date, Stanley has done more than 1.75 lakh RT-PCR tests. It processes about 96 samples per hour and does 22 runs per day. The results come in six hours. Dr Sheeba, Assistant Professor of Microbiology, says the civic body brings up some samples in triple layer pack in cold boxes, in separate vehicles. “During the extraction stage, there are chances of some exposure to the virus. But luckily, there has been no outbreaks in the department so far,” she adds.
She says that the labs are periodically disinfected and the doctors undergo periodic quarantine. While it is a new experience for the microbiologists themselves, doctors say training and monitoring the PG doctors alongside is a challenging experience. As if these were not enough, an added complication comes in the form of manufacturing variations.
The testing strategy, experts say, differ depending on manufacturers. “We have semi-automated and automated RNA extractors. There was difficulty for a short period but we learn and go ahead by implementing the user manual,” says Chandrasekar. Beating all odds, these experts make sure the virus is identified and contained with minimal human impact.
The everyday challenge...
The real challenge, however, was learning to spot the virus that was never tested before. “We are familiar with bacterial culture, pathogen identification, dengue tests, and even HIV tests. But, this was something new. It took some time but we quickly adapted to the situation,” says doctor Dillirani, head of the microbiology department at Stanley GH