Editorial:Don't put all eggs in the BGI basket

【明報專訊】The government has demanded the BGI Group, a contractor for COVID-19 virus testing, submit an investigation report and has temporarily stopped commissioning the laboratory to run mobile testing stations after a string of testing blunders revealed. The situation of the pandemic outside Hong Kong is volatile as COVID-19 variants rage across countries. Efforts to prevent the import of the mutant strains into the city have to be strict and tight, and testing is particularly a crucial part in the gatekeeping. BGI is responsible for collecting specimens from the airport and designated hotels for people under quarantine and conducting tests. No mistakes should be allowed. But recently, several false positive cases involving BGI's testing have been identified. An inbound traveller was also confirmed to have contracted the disease only after she had left the quarantine hotel and entered the community. The authorities must follow up the issue thoroughly to see whether the frontline workers are doing an adequate job of sample taking and whether there are loopholes in the measures taken by the laboratory to prevent contamination. In order to ensure a neutral and objective inquiry, the government should arrange for the participation of an independent third party. In view of the huge workload of virus testing, the government's expert advisors are concerned that the fatigue of frontline workers may affect their alertness and their haste may easily cause mistakes. If the authorities can distribute the work of virus testing appropriately, that will relieve the stress on individual contractors and avoid putting all eggs in one basket.

Set up more than 20 years ago, BGI is a mainland genomic sequencing institute based in Shenzhen. The Sunrise Diagnostic Centre Limited is a joint venture company formed by BGI in Hong Kong. The group is one of the five contractors running the community testing centres in Hong Kong. It also provides mobile testing station services and collects specimens from quarantine hotels. The specimens taken from the community testing centres are handled at BGI's laboratory at Tai Po Industrial Estate. As for the testing service at the airport, Sunrise has a temporary laboratory at the airport to conduct nucleic acid testing for inbound travellers. A conservative estimate is that currently about one third of all COVID-19 tests in Hong Kong are done by the group.

In recent days, BGI has been involved in multiple false positive cases. There was also an allegedly false negative case that led to the release of an infected inbound traveller into the community. A government expert advisor who had inspected the BGI lab suspected that there had been cross-contamination among the samples, leading to 26 false positives. In another case, a Filipino domestic helper tested negative twice during quarantine at a hotel. But just a few days after entering the community, testing confirmed that she had contracted a mutant strain of the virus. For the time being, it cannot be ruled out that she was exposed to the virus during hotel quarantine, but obviously it is also possible that improper sampling by testing workers resulted in the failure to identify the positive case. Various disease experts have pointed out that COVID-19 patients commonly begin to develop antibodies ten days after infection. After the Filipino domestic helper concerned was hospitalised, testing immediately found that she had the antibodies, a sign that she had already been infected for some time. If sample taking had been done properly during hotel quarantine, the case would supposedly have been identified much earlier.

On average, each BGI staffer has to handle 800 samples every day and work for at least 50 hours a week. Government expert advisor Yuen Kwok-yung is concerned whether exhaustion will make laboratory workers less alert about the accidental contamination of the samples. It is not desirable to put all the eggs in one basket. A suitable relief of the stress of testing workload is also good for BGI. Yesterday (April 26) the government began to outsource quarantine testing service for designated hotel guests to another private testing organisation alongside BGI. This can share the testing workload out and is a good move to all sides.

明報社評2021.04.27:病毒檢測不容有失 雞蛋不宜集中一籃





■Glossary 生字

specimen : a sample for medical testing

relieve : to remove or reduce an unpleasant feeling or pain

outsource : to arrange for sb outside an organisation to do work or provide goods for it

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