By Rathindra Kuruwita
The government laboratory service was prevented from testing passengers arriving in Sri Lanka by a group of Health Ministry specialists who made large amounts of money from private laboratories and quarantine centres, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS), Ravi Kumudesh told The Island yesterday.
Kumudesh levelled this allegation responding to a statement made by Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath that the health sector was not equipped to test all those who arrived from overseas.
“This is a false claim. Actually, there are four options available for the government to test all tourists. All of these options are blocked by the Health Ministry. If we are given a free hand, we can use these options to test everyone who comes into and leaves Sri Lanka and issue results within two hours,” Kumudesh said.
The first option was to use the PCR lab established at the BIA in mid-2020, the CMLS President said. “At this time, even the most advanced nations have just started establishing such facilities at airports. However, there was a lot of resistance from certain officials of the Health Ministry and doctors who worked at private labs and got money from quarantine centres”, he alleged.
“However, private labs were entrusted with the task of conducting PCR tests on all tourists arriving in Sri Lanka. The state-run lab did not receive a single sample. This is unfortunate because we can test 4,500 people a day and issue reports within 90 minutes,” Kumudesh said.
The second option was to use the state of the art lab at the BIA premises built by the Airport and Aviation Authority. However, the Health Ministry had not authorised the lab to start operations, Kumudesh said.
Kumudesh added that the Health Ministry allowed private individuals to set up labs and test people for COVID with little oversight, but a lab that could be compared to the one at the Dubai Airport and run by a state institution was prevented from operating a PCR lab.
“They are finding faults with the lab. The government has taken a risk by opening up the airports, given the importance of the tourism sector. However, some state institutions are preventing the mitigation of this risk,” he said.
The third option was to expand rapid PCR tests, Kumudesh said. Sixteen 16 Sri Lankan hospitals already do rapid PCRs. They include the Embilipitiya Hospital, which is in the former Health Minister’s electoral district, he said.
The lab technologists’ union leader said that all 16 machines had been received by the country as donations and the Health Ministry officials had continuously undermined President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had instructed the Ministry to buy 30 rapid PCR machines.
The CMLS President said that the President had issued the order after they had written to him on eight separate occasions.
“However, the Health Ministry officials reduced the number by half and although the tenders were called in June, nothing came of it. We wrote to philanthropists and they responded. For example, the rapid PCR machine at the Embilipitiya Hospital was donated by Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, the machine at Lady Ridgeway Hospital was donated by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane,” he said. Kumudesh said that if the Health Ministry went ahead with the tender and imported rapid PCR machines, all those who arrived in the country could be checked within 90 minutes.
The fourth option was to use the five Mobile Molecular Labs donated by an Indian company. Those labs could be taken anywhere and PCR tests could be conducted at half the cost of a regular lab test. Those labs were also not used for testing. Kumudesh said.
“The Health Ministry has four options to test people arriving in and leaving Sri Lanka. However, senior officials insist that the government doesn’t have the capacity to test these people. These senior officials also formulate guidelines that prevent government labs from testing people. They do this because they are part time practitioners in private labs and they make money by sending people to private quarantine centres. There is a clear conflict of interest here,” Kumudesh said.