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Russia's testing trouble continues Private Russian labs testing for COVID-19 were suddenly forced to stop as the government's public health agency released its own paid test. Then, the agency abruptly changed course.
Several major private laboratories have set up coronavirus testing in Russia’s regions in recent weeks following earlier regulatory hurdles. Then, they abruptly stopped, citing new recommendations from the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor). At the same time, the government agency launched its own testing system for COVID-19 that would require a fee from each patient, promising to expand the service to all of Russia’s regions. One week later, however, an order from Russia’s prime minister forced Rospotrebnadzor to allow for private testing once again.
On March 26, the private laboratory chain Helix began testing for coronavirus in Yekaterinburg, Surgut, Abakan, Komi, and a number of cities in southern Russia, the lab’s press office announced. The tests, which are not free, were given only to patients who did not have acute respiratory symptoms and to those who had no known contact with people who had returned from abroad. Samples from the patients were then taken to Moscow and St. Petersburg, since approved Helix laboratories are only located in those cities, Helix’s press representative explained.
But on April 2, due to new “recommendations” from the federal public health agency Rospotrebnadzor, transports of the test samples were forced to stop, according to Helix’s press representative. The magazine Company was the first to report on the suspension of laboratory testing. Artyom Pyatygin, executive director of the Helix Laboratory Service in Surgut, told Company on April 6, “We were the only private laboratory in Surgut that was conducting this research. We were not afraid, we were prepared: we had bought protective gowns, respirators, and goggles. We operated successfully for several days. Meanwhile, we didn’t earn anything from the tests, except for enough to cover expenses and glitches, since almost the whole cost [that customers pay] is the cost of the test itself.”
“As soon as a decision is made to enable the collection of biological samples in the regions [i.e. outside Moscow and St. Petersburg], Helix will immediately launch testing in its diagnostic centers. Currently, we have more than 70 centers in 42 cities across the nation that are ready to start testing,” Helix’s representative said.
On April 8, the laboratory’s testing prospects suddenly changed again when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced a significant expansion of Russia’s private testing policy. A Rospotrebnadzor representative told Meduza that all private labs will now have to do to begin testing is fill out an online form. The sudden flip-flops have left labs like Helix in limbo as COVID-19 continues to spread.
The situation is similar at the private lab chain Hemotest. To test for coronavirus, samples from the regions must be delivered to the chain’s laboratory complex in the Moscow suburb Lyubertsy, explained company representative Anna Lisovets. On March 31, Hemotest launched testing in Crimea, but it stopped on the same day — also because of a Rospotrebnadzor recommendation. “It is forbidden to transport samples to private laboratories outside of the territory where the samples were collected,” the head of Crimea’s Rospotrebnadzor branch, Natalia Penkovskaya, stated at the time.
“Currently, the agency [Rospotrebnadzor] is conducting additional consultations on the transportation of potentially dangerous biosamples to the laboratory near Moscow. For its part, Hemotest takes all necessary safety measures when procuring, storing, and transporting samples, but we are prepared to introduce additional safety measures and are now working with specialists from Rospotrebnadzor on this project,” said Hemotest in response to Meduza’s request for comment.
Both Hemotest and Helix use test systems from the state-owned research center “Vector,” which is also a part of Rospotrebnadzor. “Rospotrebnadzor distributes and issues test systems, and we are not experiencing a shortage of tests,” a Helix representative told Meduza.
A Rospotrebnadzor representative was unable to explain the agency’s decision to restrict testing in private centers to Meduza as of April 7.
On that same day, it was reported that the private laboratory Invitro, which had previously announced plans to start testing for coronavirus, had also changed its mind “after analyzing the situation and accessing the risks.” In addition, Invitro will function as a centralized laboratory, accepting biosamples only from state medical facilities, clinics, and hospitals. Invitro will start operating in this capacity in Novosibirsk this week. The lab is using tests from a private Novosibirsk manufacturer called “Vector-Best.”
Kirill Dmitriev, head of the government-sponsored Russian Direct Investment Fund, which has invested in the production of rapid tests for coronavirus, said in an interview with Kommersant that testing is already up and running at a number of private clinics in Moscow, including at the laboratories Archimedes, KDL, and the “Mother and Child” clinic. KDL told a Meduza reporter that its laboratory is not conducting tests for coronavirus. At Archimedes, meanwhile, the service is only available to companies and organizations, not to individuals. The Mother and Child clinic collects samples at a hospital in Lapino.
Currently, the bulk of coronavirus testing in Russia is carried out by state medical facilities and Rospotrebnadzor laboratories. In many regions, there are no private labs that can conduct testing. In Saratov, for example, testing can only take place in government facilities. “Doctors have been instructed to only test those who have returned from abroad, who have had known contact with the virus, or who are in the hospital with pneumonia,” reported the Saratov newspaper Vzglyad-Info. Non-government tests aren’t available in Nizhny Novgorod either, Kommersant reported last week. In Omsk, testing only takes place at Rospotrebnadzor laboratories, and taking tests voluntarily or at a private laboratory is not permitted.
On April 6, it was reported that residents of Moscow and the Moscow region can take an at-home coronavirus test through Rospotrebnadzor. This at-home testing system is planned to launch later in all Russian regions. The service will cost a fee.
By April 8, however, a private clinic had also released an at-home coronavirus test, indicating that Russia’s testing capacities outside state agencies may finally be set to expand following the prime minister’s announcement that day.
Translation by Nikki Lohr
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