Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has received new laboratory equipment which will significantly enhance its COVID 19 testing capability.

The equipment was made possible through funding donated to CARPHA by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD, or French Development Agency in English) during a handover ceremony at the CARPHA Headquarters in Port of Spain, on Tuesday 23rd February 2021.  The event was also attended by Members and Representatives of the AFD-CARPHA Project Steering Committee, including representatives of the French Regional Health Agencies of Martinique and Guadeloupe as well as the French Public Health Agency, and CARPHA Staff.

It marks a milestone in a partnership between the agencies, which was established in early 2019.  At that time, CARPHA and AFD had embarked on a project centred on a shared commitment to strengthen regional health security, and prevent and control non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Caribbean. 

AFD’s funding support has enabled CARPHA to execute a number of regional initiatives directly benefiting Member States, CARPHA, and the French Territories.

According to an official statement from CARPHA, the partnership between the Agencies evolved during the COVID-19 global outbreak, with the ready support of the AFD for CARPHA’s role in spearheading the regional public health preparedness and response efforts.

CARPHA’s Director of Surveillance, Disease Prevention and Control, Dr Lisa Indar, notes that the project with AFD has helped strengthen regional surveillance systems, which directly impacts the detection, monitoring and control of regional outbreaks of communicable diseases, vector borne diseases and upsurge in chronic non-communicable diseases.

“The grant mechanism also provides a forum and funding to facilitate the exploration of opportunities to strengthen relationships and cooperation with the French Caribbean Overseas Regions and French public health institutions,” Dr Indar said.

CARPHA Executive Director, Dr Joy St. John, observed: “The AFD-CARPHA project’s focus on health security proved to be timely.”

The CARPHA official noted that as COVID-19 quickly spread through all regions of the globe, key public health agencies and authorities in the Caribbean convened under the Regional Coordinating Mechanism for Health Security (RCM-HS), chaired by CARPHA and supported by the grant.  

“The aim was to assess the threat of the disease overwhelming the limited capacities of national health systems and review international and regional preparedness, readiness and response.  Project-funded staff also provided much-needed regional epidemiological surveillance and biostatistical services for development and dissemination of regional COVID-19 data and information,” she recalled.

As the regional reference laboratory, CARPHA also experienced a heightened demand for diagnostic testing services from Member States and other territories in the Region and identified the need to further increase testing capacity for SARS-CoV-2.

Dr St. John expressed appreciation for the support of the AFD, and by extension, the support of the Government and People of France for the purchase, installation and training on the use of supplemental equipment to strengthen CARPHA’s Medical Microbiology Laboratory capacity.

“It is thanks to our partners, like the AFD, that today CARPHA is now the proud owner of this new PCR equipment, and soon, a top-up of personal protective equipment, to support regional testing services for SARS-CoV-2. This equipment provides capacity to test faster, cutting processing time by 80%,” she stated.

CARPHA’s already consistent 24- to 48-hour turn-around for COVID-19 specimen testing services for CARPHA Member States will see a reduction in turnaround time for relevant tests, which will be key to maintaining the hard-earned status of a safe region for residents and visitors alike as the pandemic evolves.

Mr. Asif Ali, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Trinidad and Tobago brought remarks on behalf of the Honourable Terrance Deyalsingh, Minister of Health.  He recognised the contribution of the AFD to the regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic, stating:

“The Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago recognises and thanks the AFD as a key partner in this fight against COVID-19 through this support for the CARPHA Medical Microbiology Laboratory and in particular, testing for SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19.”

Chief Medical Officer The Bahamas, Dr Pearl McMillan, noted the region will benefit tremendously from the aid extended by AFD to CARPHA. Dr McMillan brought remarks on behalf of the Honourable Renward Wells, Minister of Health, Bahamas, who is also Chair of the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD), an organ of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Chair of the CARPHA Executive Board.

“Support by the AFD and the French Government is well acknowledged and greatly appreciated as we in the Caribbean region face the public health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “CARPHA’s increased capacity to provide COVID-19 testing services undoubtedly strengthens the response capacity of its 26 Member States, and by extension, contributes to the health security of other Territories and States in the Region.”  

“The objectives of this project are more relevant than ever at this moment in history,” stated Mr. Philippe La Cognata, Regional Director, Agence Française de Développement. 

“When in February 2019, we signed a €1.5 million grant with CARPHA in Trinidad, we had no idea that a few months later the world would be hit by one of the biggest global pandemics in our contemporary history. It is a pleasure for AFD to participate to the official inauguration of a PCR sequencer installed in the CARPHA laboratory, which we helped finance. This new leading-edge equipment makes PCR diagnostics more reliable and speeds up sequencing at a time in history when we need to act fast to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. La Cognata said.

“CARPHA shows how important it is to pool resources and research in order to tackle any pandemic. AFD is proud to have contributed to it,” he added.

Also speaking at the handover ceremony was Dr. Douglas Slater, Assistant Secretary-General, Human and Social Development at CARICOM. 

“As the region faces health, financial, and socio-economic threats to life as we knew it, in this existential crisis caused by the pandemic, the Community turned to CARPHA in its fulfilment of the role as the regional public health lead, to coordinate CARICOM preparedness and response. CARPHA’s approach to supporting the region was to work hand-in-hand with partners here in the Americas and indeed in many other regions to ensure that the Community stood a fighting chance to protect its peoples—truly a demonstration of strength in unity.  The CARICOM Secretariat is pleased to recognize the AFD as one of the early and effective sources of support to maintaining the health and well-being of the region. We are grateful for your contribution towards the strengthening of regional health security, which will no doubt yield dividends for years to come,” Dr Slater said.

Keynote speaker, His Excellency Serge Lavroff, Ambassador of France to Trinidad and Tobago, confirmed the commitment of France to international cooperation, strengthening multilateralism and giving international institutions the strength, authority and means to fulfil their mission, referring first and foremost to the World Health Organization (WHO) but also to all regional organisations, like CARPHA and PAHO which fight on a daily basis, with courage and dedication, against the spread of the virus.

The Ambassador paid tribute to the work of CARPHA in the immense collective effort to fight the virus in the Caribbean, and once again welcomed the contribution of the AFD to the region.  He commended the AFD for its “Santé en commun” (Health in common) initiative set up at the start of the pandemic to enable the most vulnerable countries in the world to better manage epidemiological risks and the consequences of the health crisis. 

His Excellency took the opportunity to commend the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for their commitment to fight and control, with dedication and success, the COVID-19 threat. 

He also paid a heartfelt tribute to the healthcare workers around the world, “who, often at the risk of their own lives, fight every day to treat, care for and save the lives of all those dear to us”.