Health auth. investigating different Covid-19 tests; 20,000 fmr. healthcare workers returning

Hugo de Jonge at the EPP Summit in Brussels, May 2019
Hugo de Jonge at the EPP Summit in Brussels, May 2019European People's PartyWikimedia CommonsCC-BY

Minister Hugo de Jonge of Public Health asked health institute RIVM to look into other available coronavirus tests in order to increase the Netherlands' testing capacity, he said in a letter to parliament. He also said that around 20 thousand former and retired healthcare workers have volunteered to return to the sector to help with the Covid-19 crisis.

In answer to questions from opposition party FvD, De Jonge said that fast-tests for Covid-19 are being developed in South Korea and other countries. He asked the RIVM and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam to research the reliability, sensitivity, and specificity of these tests, and to assess whether they are worth getting.

He also said that the claim by a Groningen virologist that the Covid-19 test can be performed by any lab in the Netherlands is true, but added that there is a worldwide shortage of certain materials and raw materials used for these tests. Currently 35 laboratories in the Netherlands are able to test for the coronavirus, De Jonge said. And around 2 thousand Covid-19 tests are performed daily in the country. 

One limitation on the number of tests conducted in the Netherlands is the availability of a proprietary lysis buffer fluid produced by pharmaceutical firm Roche for use with its machines. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said, “The lysis buffer is indeed one of the scarce ingredients,” which limits the testing capacity in the Netherlands.

“Technically, we can manufacture this ourselves, but this is subject to regulations, and we must make agreements about this with the manufacturer,” he said.

A Thursday morning report by Dutch publication Follow The Money quoted sources saying the buffer could easily be produced by the Dutch laboratories themselves, but it would require the permission of Roche and knowledge of their manufacturing process. The publication said Roche would not answer questions about releasing the formula to solve the exceptional crisis faced in the Netherlands.

Until the Netherlands is able to test more people, it will continue the strategy of only testing those patients where a positive result changes the provision of their care or the approach by the public health agency. To date, testing has been mainly limited to healthcare workers, those more susceptible to illness, and older patients.

Due to the scarcity of testing material, only certain people are tested based on a national guideline, according to the Minister. "Testing takes place if the results of the test have implications for individual care, care within an institution, care that can be provided by care staff, or if it provides information for public health," he said. “We are looking at how the government can support the production of [coronavirus] tests. We are thus looking for a special envoy in the Covid-19 field who will be tasked with facilitating the centralized management of production, purchasing, and distribution of tests.”

On Twitter, De Jonge also said that some 20 thousand former and retired healthcare workers have responded to the call to return to the sector to help with the Covid-19 crisis. The government relaxed the rules for healthcare workers last week, so that more nurses and doctors could get back to work immediately. For example, healthcare workers whose registration in the so-called BIG register expired less than two years ago can start working again immediately without re-registering first. 

"20 thousand pairs of extra hands for care. It's fantastic how many (former) healthcare professionals want to participate in this corona crisis," De Jonge said.