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Mar 5, 2020

Healthy Living: Testing for COVID-19 Done in Belize

The number of coronavirus cases has tripled as the virus grows rapidly across the world. There are no confirmed cases in Belize, but the Ministry of Health has been adopting new measures to face the novel virus. The ministry has moved away from sending samples overseas and local health professionals have been trained to conduct testing at a local facility. Here is Healthy Living.


The global attention on the new coronavirus seems to be at an all-time high. To date, there are nearly one hundred thousand confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the globe. The Ministry of Health has been providing periodic updates to the public through the media and public forums on the latest surveillance efforts on this new disease.


Marleni Cuellar

Marleni Cuellar

“Belize has done surveillance before for brand new diseases like zika, chikungunya and H1N1. But what’s different this time around with COVID-19 is that for the first time, we have the capacity to test right here at home; right here at the Central Medical Laboratory.”


Juvencio Chan

Juvencio Chan, Acting Director, Central Medical Lab, MOH

“We are the referral lab for the country. We get samples from PG to Corozal, and we are the only ones testing for COVID.”

Juvencio Chan and his team at the Central Medical Laboratory play an integral role in the ongoing monitoring of the new disease. It is here in these labs that the presence of Covid-19 in Belize will first be detected.


Aldo Sosa

Aldo Sosa, Epidemiological Lab Supervisor, Central Med Lab

“Our concern is at the lab is how do we detect this new virus. Will we need to send samples outside that obviously implies a time of transport. A time for results to return, and a lot of factors are added into that. So that would limit our capacity to detect in a timely manner.”


This was the reality in the past when the country had to wait for weeks for results from samples sent for testing outside the country. However, in February, through the assistance of the Pan American Health Organization, two Belizeans traveled to Mexico to be trained to test for COVID-19. Celso Carrera and Ruby Aguillon are the two lab technicians who were trained.


Celso Carrera

Celso Carrera, Acting Quality Assurance Coordinator, Central Med Lab

“SARS-COV2 is the name of the virus that causes the disease COVID-19.  To put it layman terms, it is like you are looking for a needle in a haystack; what we have are primers and probes that act as a magnet, so let’s say our virus is the needle. It’s a gold standard, we had it in the past, and now it has been developed to a level that you know its a gold standard. It’s the best test there is. PCR, nothing can compare to PCR at the moment.”


The central medical lab can now test a suspected case and the results available within 24 hours. But the technical expertise is one thing; resources are another, in this case, the number of available testing kits.


Celso Carrera 

“We brought those into the country. Those are prepared baby PAHO in conjunction with the World Health Organisation and CDC. So we brought in this in the country which we only had one hundred reactions, and each country in the Caribbean received one hundred reactions and Central America. The advice was that when this thing blows out of proportion, then the CDC will come in with kits that are designed for mass testing. This kit is for screening purposes, but the other kit is not ready as yet.”


Aldo Sosa

“The test does not go directly to COVID-19, we know that when something new comes. There’s always anxiety, and it is understandable. People want to know and want to know fast. However, in that anxiety, we tend to overlook certain things, and we run the risk of misusing our resources. With the Baylor college, once a patient fits the criteria for that study the patient is tested throughout all that panel, the patient is negative the patient proceeds to COVID-19 also depending on the case definitions.”


Incidentally since the end of January 2020, where Belize is a part of a study that is testing patients with flu-like symptoms for the specific virus causing the illness. So previouslt the lab was testing for about seven different types of viruses. Now as a part of the Baylor study, it tests for over twenty.


Marleni Cuellar

“What would then make you do the COVID-19 test?”


Aldo Sosa

“The travel history, as per the case definition, if the person has had contact with a positive COVID-19 and—I’m just summarizing the case definitions—section C, which is the person has a severe acute respiratory illness and needs to be hospitalized. There’s no known other cause or etymology for his symptoms.”


Sosa noted that since there is a possibility of co-infection, which means a person may have the flu and COVID-19, some samples will be tested for both, depending on the case definition. In the past two weeks, the lab has done five COVID-19 tests, all of which were negative.


Celso Carrera 

“Regionally, we need the surveillance we need that system. We need to know. Whenever the virus arrives, we need to know to say ok SRS-COv2 is here. We will go from a state of preparedness that we already did to a state of readiness and rapid response.”


And that state of readiness means the technicians are on call to be able to conduct testing at any time in the event of a suspected COVID-19 case.


Juvencio Chan

“It can come from anywhere. We have a plan as to how the sample will be transported from anywhere in the country to arrive at us, and we’ll have the lab tech here, and we’ll start processing. We are well prepared to handle this COVID-19, and we are ready.”

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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