February 15, 2023
In June 2020, the Central Laboratory in Suriname received its designation as a World Health Organization (WHO) recognized National Influenza Center. Less than a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the Central Laboratory had a crucial role to fulfil in terms of diagnosis and surveillance. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) aims to provide technical cooperation to strengthen the Central Laboratory’s capacity for diagnosis of respiratory illnesses such as Influenza and COVID-19 and sat down virtually to have a chat with Phyllis Pinas, Acting Head of the Central Laboratory in Paramaribo, Suriname about her experiences in her current role during this time.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Would you like to share a bit more about yourself and your background?
In 2008, I received a scholarship to continue my education in Surakarta, Indonesia for a Master’s degree in Bioscience. I completed my studies and returned to Suriname in 2011 and immediately started working as a full time Researcher and head of the Cell Culture Laboratory at the Medical Faculty of the Anton de Kom University Suriname. In 2014 I was transferred to the Institute for Graduate Studies and Research Suriname, where I worked as a full-time Researcher until March 2016, where I still teach part-time.
In October 2019, I started my career in the Central Laboratory of the Bureau of Healthcare (BOG) as Head of the Bacteriology Department, where I have been closely involved with Molecular Diagnostics. In November 2020, I stepped into the Acting position of Head of Central Laboratory, which I hold until today and is a role I am very passionate about. It is a very challenging position especially with this pandemic because I find myself on the work floor often enough performing tests and interpreting results, in addition to managerial duties.
My goal for the Central Laboratory is to become a valued Public Health Laboratory in the region. In addition to this, I would like the Central Laboratory to continue to focus on strengthening the collaboration with other laboratories and conducting research together with other institutes. The Central Laboratory will always strive to retain its various ISO accreditations and recognition as a National Influenza Center (NIC). The latter accreditation would not have been possible without PAHO.
How did PAHO assist the Central Lab in becoming a National Influenza Center (NIC)?
In early February 2020, PAHO/WHO strengthened the capacity of the laboratory by providing us with an international technical consultant from Washington DC, who guided us through the process of the NIC certification. She first assessed the institution for viability to become a NIC according to the requirements set by WHO. During the assessment, she also took the opportunity to implement the use of primers and probes, which better helped us to meet the requirements for the NIC certification. Thanks to PAHO, Suriname was the first country in the Caribbean to receive a donation of these primers and probes which helped with the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 and for which we are still truly grateful. We were recognized as a NIC in July 2020. To this day, if there are any doubts in terms of diagnostic results, materials, or inventory, we can count on the technical expertise of PAHO/WHO to assist us in this matter. Lastly, the funds provided to us by PAHO from the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework enable us to keep functioning as a NIC.
“Without the technical and financial support PAHO has provided, COVID-19 diagnostics and surveillance would simply not be possible in Suriname and for that and all other support we are extremely grateful.
How does PAHO support you in your daily tasks at the Central Lab?
Apart from routine technical assistance and donations of laboratory supplies from PAHO, we also benefited from an international consultant provided by PAHO in-house, who helped us in providing specialized training to our staff, offered technical advice and overall made us feel more confident in our work at the Central Lab with his expertise and support. He also helped me oversee that all protocols and guidelines were updated and in place and that any gaps identified were addressed. In addition to this, in terms of storage and procurement management, his help has been invaluable.
How has the Central Lab been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
It has been challenging to keep up with the demand of COVID-19 analysis, and because of the added pressure of each wave, we have not been able to analyse Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI) samples weekly, which is a requirement to keep our certification as a NIC. In addition, not all sites have been able to provide samples to the Central Lab for SARI analysis due to shortages in staff and pressures of providing medical care and services during the several COVID-19 waves. Thanks to PAHO, we have started analysing SARI samples again in December 2021.
PAHO has provided us with technical assistance from the start of the pandemic, which has enabled us to operate accordingly and deliver accurate results. We have also received diagnostic equipment for PCR analysis, PPE, consumables as well as (refresher) trainings for our laboratory staff from PAHO. Keeping track of inventory in times like these has also proven difficult, and we have experienced situations where diagnostic material was out-of-stock. This has also been a learning experience for me, and the technical assistance provided by PAHO has helped us operate better, even in terms of inventory planning and procurement.