Developing World-Class Technology Solutions Against COVID-19By Miriam Bello | Wed, 09/23/2020 - 13:01
Q: How has Laboratorio Médico Polanco adapted and responded to the needs brought by the pandemic?
A: Our laboratory in Puebla, Laboratorios Clínicos de Puebla, has more than 70 years of experience and performs molecular diagnostics. Thus, we have vast knowledge of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. While this technology already existed, we developed a test to detect the COVID-19 strand using worldwide accepted protocols. In March 2020, Laboratorio Médico Polanco became the first to develop this test in Mexico. As the pandemic advanced, INDRE determined the use of the Berlin Charite protocol, which forced us to move away from the CDC protocol that we had initially chosen. This change slowed down our progress since we had to redesign part of our process. This took more than a month but thanks to this proprietary technology and an agnostic platform that allows different reagents, we had the flexibility to switch brands while the country faced reagent shortages. This resulted in business continuity and an important competitive advantage. Laboratorio Médico Polanco’s initial capacity was of 250 tests per day. We decisively invested in technology and human resources. Allowing us to scale to more than 1,000 tests per day in four months and eventually 4,500 test per day. We believe that this capacity makes us the largest national laboratory for PCR testing in Mexico. Cumulatively, we have applied close to 810,000 tests to date and we are convinced that testing is key to control and overcome the pandemic.
PCR testing has more than compensated the huge reduction of visits to our facilities. Many patients decided to postpone studies or simply to avoid them due to lack of resources and fear of contracting the disease. Other than PCR testing, we have developed antibody tests to detect immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as home service, telemedicine, online payment and IT solutions to interact with our patients. We are convinced that these abilities will play a key role in the new normality.
Q: Why is it important to have a strong private healthcare sector in Mexico?
A: The private sector contributes much needed infrastructure, knowledge and technology to healthcare. Laboratorio Médico Polanco, like other private companies, offers world-class quality solutions to patients, doctors, insurance companies, hospitals and other diagnostic laboratories. For example, we are currently validating saliva tests instead of cotton swabs because of the contagion risk the latter present to the person applying the test and the logistics easiness of saliva. Moreover, cotton swabbing could potentially generate false negatives if the person performing the test is not carefully trained. We are working on developing batch testing protocols to sample asymptomatic patients. This early detection of COVID-19 should significantly contribute to flattening the curve of contagion.
Now that Mexico is stepping into the new normality, the support of the private sector shall be essential as we provide high quality at more affordable prices. Increasing testing volumes should allow for lower costs, generating a virtual cycle for the ecosystem.
Laboratorio Médico Polanco is also working on the validation of pool testing, which should allow to mix samples of different patients into one test. This technique could be cost-efficient depending on the prevalence of the disease in a specific population. It could be ideal to test people with no symptoms. Several organizations could be benefited by detecting asymptomatic patients early on and stopping the spread.
Mexico needs to increase COVID-19 testing because we are not detecting patients early enough. WHO suggest a positivity rate of 10 percent or lower, while Mexico is currently above 50 percent. This implies that the number of tests should be at least five times larger. The private sector can work with the government to increase capacity and close the gap. It would be of great help if regulatory barriers could be redefined in the face of the pandemic. For example, products with previous authorization by a world class regulatory agency from another country could be fast-tracked. It is imperative to detect the virus in a timely manner.
Furthermore, our hope is that this pandemic will force people to realize the importance of prevention and early diagnosis. The pandemic has demonstrated how dangerous it is for people to be unhealthy or to suffer from other chronic diseases that could be easily prevented. Unfortunately, Mexico is among the top countries regarding diabetes and obesity. Eighty percent of the health budget is destined to treat four chronical degenerative diseases. These resources could be better used to early detect high-risk individuals. Such patients can benefit from simple changes to their lifestyle or diet. However, a new system to identify these patients instead of waiting for those who are already sick to walk through the door seeking for treatment is not easy to implement. Nonetheless, it is the only alternative that our country has. Our hope is that both the private and public sector can work together to develop this alternative model.
Q: Aside from COVID-19 testing, what else is Laboratorio Médico Polanco introducing to its services portfolio?
A: We are working on a D-dimer test that detects inflammation and can help predict how a patient will evolve during an infection. For COVID-19, this is very valuable. We are also working on early detection of cancer and diabetes tests and we have a new promising test to measure vitamin D, which should be ready soon.
Regarding the pandemic, we have been given the opportunity to operate the laboratory at the temporary hospital at Centro Citibanamex. This is a world-class hospital that was built to create additional capacity to face the pandemic. It is an extraordinary project with top medical staff. This experience has been very gratifying; we are seeing the impact of this initiative on families, since the service is free of charge and it has already saved thousands of lives. While this center has had outstanding results, it has not been used as much as we had initially anticipated. Its capacity has been only partially used because of the criteria to take patients and the difficulty to transfer patients through the healthcare system.
Q: What are Laboratorio Médico Polanco’s short-term goals?
A: Right now, we want to continue growing our PCR test capacity because there is not enough offer in the country and demand is not being met. We want to continue developing technology to improve the easiness and costs of detecting COVID-19. Additionally, we are focused on developing new tests and new skills to offer differentiated solutions to our patients considering the new normality. Hopefully, this pandemic will allow us to raise awareness of the importance of diagnostics in our country and to put prevention at the center of the healthcare conversations. The learnings from this experience should not be taken lightly.
Laboratorio Médico Polanco has 29 years of experience providing laboratory and X-ray services. Its portfolio now includes clinical analysis, parasitology, immunology, hematology, microbiology, clinical chemistry and cytology