The devices, supplied by Swiss company Roche, arrived in the first week of April as per the government statement, but so far, only one is operational in Jakarta.
The lab conditions needed to be adjusted, said Arya Mahendra Sinulingga, a spokesperson for the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises at the press conference. Because the virus is so contagious, special precautions are necessary, such as a negative air pressure environment that ensures microorganisms don’t spread outside of the room. The machines sent to labs in Indonesia’s remote provinces will take at least two more weeks to be set up.
In the meanwhile, the private sector is stepping up.
Nusantics—a local biotech company which applies PCR technology in the cosmetics industry—made use of its lab and staff experience to help develop PCR test material locally. The kit, it claims, is adapted to the local strain of the virus, bettering accuracy.
Indonesia, like other countries, is also falling short on the supply of components to produce test kits at a massive scale. “All nations are fighting over the same raw materials. It is indeed a real challenge,” said Sharlini Elisa Putri, the CEO of Nusantics.
Nusantics was able to develop a prototype test kit, which can cover 6,400 tests, she said. The company handed over the prototype to Indonesia’s National Research Agency (BPPT), which now has to orchestrate the mass production of 100,000 test kits through a state-owned enterprise. Nusantics has no plans to commercialise its prototype, Sharlini Elisa Putri claimed. The firm raised money through a crowdfunding campaign to fund the acquisition of material for the kits, as well as further R&D.
Rapidly changing rapid testing
“This test kit will significantly increase national test capacity starting in the first weeks of May,” the task force at BPPT that’s in charge of the program told us. But that’s if everything goes to plan, and when efforts “run 24/7,” said a spokesperson for the group.
Another bottleneck is the shortage of trained staff. Handling samples is a risk and must be performed with strict discipline. A biotechnology research lab of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) has plans to train 800 lab assistants in the handling and processing of Covid-19 samples; it started the first wave of training on 31 March.
The number sounds impressive, however, with increasingly strict social distancing rules in the country, this type of training also has to be re-imagined and it will occur over several months. Only 16 participants out of batches of 100 can participate in the actual offline training in a real lab environment at a time, Ratih Asmana Ningrum, a researcher at LIPI involved in the program told us. The bulk of the training occurs online. It’s intended for people who are already working in labs but are new to handling Covid-19 samples.
It’s a slow process. In the meantime, rapid testing has taken centre stage, with Indonesia importing equipment from China.
The first batch of a total of 500,000 rapid test kits earmarked for import from China arrived mid-March and has since been distributed to hospitals and community health centres.