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Costa Rica to develop its own COVID-19 detection tests

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Currently, countries around the world are competing to acquire reagents and laboratory kits to diagnose the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Faced with this scenario, public institutions, private companies, and the United Nations have undertaken to validate an alternative protocol to identify the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The study carried out in Costa Rica seeks to adapt protocols to replace parts or stages of commercial kits, currently used in official laboratories, with others performing the same function, but employing inputs and reagents with lower demand, and with validated performance with clinical samples. This should make it possible to have our own, nationally produced tests available.

«In general terms, the detection of the virus by means of RT-PCR consists of three steps: the extraction of viral genetic material, reverse transcription and detection. It is technically possible to replace components, reagents, or technologies for these steps with others that have a lower demand pressure on the global market and are presumably more easily accessible. The great challenge lies in ensuring that the sensitivity and clinical specificity of an alternative protocol is comparable to that of commercial kits. We have set up a work team and a large logistics support network that will allow us to accelerate the prototype and testing process, in order to make the results available to the competent authorities as soon as possible,» explained Randall Loaiza Montoya, director of the National Center for Biotechnological Innovation (Centro Nacional de Innovaciones Biotecnológicas, CENIBiot). 

«Costa Rica possesses human talent with great capabilities; if we work together, we will have more and better options to overcome this pandemic, not only in medical terms, but also in terms of scientific, social and economic development. With solidarity and united, we can transform this crisis into an opportunity,» President Carlos Alvarado said.

The first results are expected in four weeks, and new strategic partners are being sought for the validation phase with patient samples, which would take an additional two weeks. 

«At MICITT, we have always stressed the importance of being able to contribute to the development of alternative detection for COVID-19; that is why today we are celebrating the fact that, with the support of UNDP, we are taking a first step in the right direction. We hope to continue our support so that we can quickly achieve these goals with Costa Rican talent and scientists,» said Luis Adrián Salazar, Minister of Science, Technology and Telecommunications (MICITT).

The study is being carried out by CENIBiot, the National Center for High Technology (Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnología, CENAT) in coordination with MICITT, the Ministry of Health, the Costa Rican Institute for Research and Teaching in Nutrition and Health (Instituto Costarricense de Investigación y Enseñanza en Nutrición y Salud, INCIENSA), the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (TEC), the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and other actors such as the Costa Rican Chamber of Industries (CICR), the Foreign Trade Promotion Agency (PROCOMER) and the Speratum company, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This proposal is complementary to and consistent with the efforts of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) and the Ministry of Health to increase diagnostic capabilities, equipment, and facilities. Although other technologies have been proposed, including rapid tests to detect antibodies, to date these do not guarantee the sensitivity offered by the standard of diagnosis via RT-PCR.

«The world is exposed to a common threat that looms large over the most vulnerable populations and countries. There is a risk of backtracking by up to two decades of development; this calls for a rapid response to address this health and socio-economic emergency. We at UNDP recognize Costa Rica’s formidable potential for innovation and technology. We are proud to work with the Ministries of Health and Science and Technology of Costa Rica, and under the leadership of CENIBiot, to ensure that we can provide solutions and hope to the most vulnerable populations,» said José Vicente Troya Rodríguez, UNDP Resident Representative.

For the first phase of this project, UNDP is contributing $37,500; $170,000 will, in turn, be provided in kind by CENIBiot (access to equipment, professionals).

«Molecular diagnostic analysis is like a recipe with steps. As an analogy, if we were making soup, the commercial products we currently use are instant soups for example and we do not know their composition. The alternative protocol version is to make the soup from scratch: water, vegetables, salt, meat, seasoning, our own recipe that will allow us to increase the coverage of screening and diagnosis in extreme scenarios, so I am very grateful for the proactive and valuable work of this group of Costa Rican scientists» said Daniel Salas, Minister of Health.

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