Since the start of the pandemic, the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia wrestled with capacity to respond effectively to COVID-19 in the country. A shortage of trained laboratory personnel limited the diagnosis of COVID-19 with polymerase chain reaction-based (PCR) COVID-19 testing. Existing viral laboratories, especially in Bishkek, the capital city, were overwhelmed by the large volume of tests that needed to be performed. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country – such as Naryn and Osh – there were no or very few trained staff who could perform PCR testing. When the Ministry of Health (MOH) deployed qualified laboratory specialists from Bishkek to work in those sites, however, it contributed to further overload of laboratories in Bishek.

With its history of productive collaboration with the Kyrgyz MOH, ICAP at Columbia University was well-positioned to address this critical health capacity challenge. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the CDC International Task Force (ITV), ICAP partnered with the MOH to strengthen capacity at health care facilities for treating patients with COVID-19, improving national surveillance of COVID-19, and supporting the exchange of information and lessons learned within the region. This collaboration also focused on implementing infection control to prevent COVID-19 infection among health care workers.

In September 2020, ICAP collaborated with CDC to conduct practical skills-building workshops on COVID-19 PCR testing. These workshops convened 15 laboratory specialists from the Kyrgyz Centers for Disease Prevention (CDP) and the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Surveillance Stations (SSES) in Bishkek, Naryn, and Osh, as well as centers for quarantine of infections and veterinary laboratories.

Training virologists for PCR testing

The workshops took place at the Central Reference Lab and included sessions covering such topics as collection, storage, and transportation of samples; biosafety and biosecurity in the laboratories; disposal and decontamination; sample preparation and RNA extraction; programming of diagnostic; real-time PCR testing and interpretation of results; and logging results in the information system. The workshop also included a session devoted to the development, implementation, and monitoring of quality control measures for molecular genetic studies.

Following the workshop and two weeks of supervised practice in September through October, newly trained specialists started to perform COVID-19 PCR testing independently.

To further expand COVID-19 testing in the Kyrgyz Republic, ICAP procured and delivered consumables and laboratory plastics to eight laboratories around the country, as well as two computers and a scanner/printer for the Central Reference Lab.

These activities, supported by ICAP as part of the CDC-funded COVID-19 response initiative, allowed for local capacity to conduct COVID-19 testing by increasing the number of laboratory specialists capable of performing real-time PCR testing.

Azat Bodoshev, head of the MOH’s virological laboratory at the CDP and the SEES, acknowledges how ICAP’s collaboration with the MOH transformed the response to COVID-19 in Kyrgyzstan, remarking, “We received humanitarian aid: PCR tests from China, Korea, and Russia, but we had a shortage of reagents, consumables, and PPE (personal protective equipment), without which PCR analysis is not possible. The project was able to redistribute the budget and purchase dispensers, microtubes for centrifuges, universal transport systems, test tubes, and PPE for specialists throughout the country.”

“I was very worried that I would not be able to learn the complex PCR technique. After all, we bacteriologists use pipettes, cups, and loops in our work, but here we had to master working with dispensers, small test tubes, a centrifuge, and new methods of extracting virus particles –  a very delicate job!” commented Zhusubakunova Tolkun Abykeevna, a laboratory bacteriologist at the Naryn Center for Disease Prevention and State Epidemiological Surveillance, who participated in the workshops. “But our experienced trainers did a wonderful job, and now I am doing PCR tests on my own. I am proud of myself. I feel my contribution in trying to combat COVID-19.”

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