Getting ready for Delta in Vanuatu

Leiwia and Jeffery practicing pipetting exercises with volumes used in standard operating procedures.
Leiwia and Jeffery practicing pipetting exercises with volumes used in standard operating procedures.

Laboratory scientist Telesia Apikotoa, Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security deployee to the Vanuatu Vila Central Hospital (VCH) laboratory, is leading on implementing new COVID-19 diagnostics with VCH lab staff.

Recognising the need for increased testing capacity for COVID-19 and other diseases, the Vanuatu Government has built a new molecular laboratory by renovating a decommissioned hospital space. Design advice, renovations and technical and procurement support for all of the new equipment within the laboratory was provided by the Pacific Community (SPC) and through a grant from the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security to the Doherty Institute.

Vanuatu has had limited exposure to COVID-19 to date, with just three reported cases of COVID-19 in 2020 and a further two in the last week of October 2021. But experience in other countries has shown the importance of early preparations to respond to a community outbreak.

All testing for COVID-19 in Vanuatu is currently done by “closed” RT-PCR GeneXpert analysers. While these are a simple to use, near point of care platform, they are expensive on a per-test basis, and the ability to scale-up is limited. The new laboratory enables Vanuatu to begin higher throughput PCR testing that uses generic reagents and has a lower cost per test – called “open” RT-PCR. However, specialised training is required for laboratory staff.

IFull PPE demonstration.n order to increase the number of Vanuatu laboratory staff able to undertake both COVID-19 tests, we have scheduled training to run from October to December 2021, after which almost all VCH laboratory staff and around half of Santo Laboratory staff will be trained in handling, processing and reporting COVID-19 tests. This will enable Vanuatu to be even better prepared for increased demands for COVID-19 testing in the future, such as in the event of an outbreak of the Delta strain in the community.

The initial group of five participants (two women and three men) participated in eight days of training in October. The program consisted of theory sessions in the VCH Library and four full days of practical sessions in the molecular laboratory.

Topics covered included:

  • ‘Open’ PCR COVID-19 testing using TIB Mol Biol primers/probes and the Biorad CFX96 analyser.
  • GeneXpert COVID-19 testing - BioFire panel testing
  • Calibration of Pipettes
  • Pipetting techniques
  • Level 2 Laboratory Workflow - Infection, Prevention and Control (IPC) training
  • Safely and correctly putting on and removing personal protective equipment (PPE)

Practical and written assessments were completed prior to and at the end of the training, in order to assess progress and competency.

The training was delivered through a mix of local and remote modes. Webinar videos and training materials were developed and provided by the Doherty Institute, including the assessment materials, while local presentations and practical support were also provided.

Participants who successfully completed the training and assessed as being competent in all areas of the training can now competently conduct “Open” RT-PCR, GeneXpert and Biofire COVID-19 testing and safely work in all areas of the Molecular Laboratory.


Kind appreciation and acknowledgement is extended to the Doherty Institute team, specifically Professor Patrick Reading, Dr Jean Moselen and Miku Kuba, for their tireless effort in providing the webinar videos and training materials for this PCR Training. Also, kind acknowledgement is extended to DFAT, WHO and SPC for co-sponsoring this training. Without your support, this training would not be possible. In addition, great appreciation is extended to the Acting Principal Laboratory Officer, Mr. George Pakoa, Clinical Head VCH, Dr. Sereana and the Vanuatu Ministry of Health for your support in enabling this training to commence.

Note from the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security:

Congratulations to Telesia for the success of this first training course, and to the participants who completed the training to gain new skills and competencies:

Mr Jeffery Kalomor, Intern Bachelor in Medical Laboratory Technologist (Federated States of Micronesia - FSM)

Ms Leiwia Dick OIC Serology Bachelor Med Lab Science. (FSM)

Mr Dexter Takau OIC Histology Bachelor Med Lab Science. (FSM)

Ms Davina Iopa Intern Bachelor BioMedical Science (Victoria University, Wellington)