UPDATE ON COVID-19 SITUATION IN SOLOMON ISLANDS

NATIONWIDE ADDRESS

HON PRIME MINISTER MANASSEH SOGAVARE, MP

29. 01. 2021

Fellow Solomon Islanders and residents of our beloved country. A very good afternoon to all of you that listening and watching around the country and overseas. 

This is a Special National Address aimed at providing an update on the COVID-19 situation in Solomon Islands as of today, Friday 29th January 2021.

Fellow citizens, there have been some level of concern over the past 24 hours that there could be community transmission of COVID-19 in the country.

Before going any further, let me assure the nation that as of this moment, we do not have any evidence of community transmission of COVID-19 in Solomon Islands.

Fellow citizens as many of you will have seen in todays newspapers or on social media platforms, there have been some concerns regarding a reported positive case of COVID-19 from one of the students that had earlier returned from the Philippines.  

I can confirm that we have indeed picked up a ‘weakly’ positive COVID-19 test result from our GeneXpert machine on one of the students that returned to Honiara on the first repatriation flight from Manila on 29th September 2020. 

This student tested negative for COVID-19 when he arrived in the country from Manila. After arrival, the student showed signs and symptoms of COVID-19, however all his initial tests were negative. 

On 20th of October 2020 [22 days after arrival] he tested positive for COVID-19. He was kept in isolation until he returned 5 consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before he was released on 24th November 2020. He was in quarantine and isolation for a total of 8 weeks before his release, as compared to the normal 3 weeks for students that returned from Manila.

In total, we have released 15 people that were previously positive after they returned 4 consecutive negative tests taken 7 days apart since our first diagnosed cased of COVID-19 on 3rd October 2020.

The first 10 people had been followed up in accordance with the follow-up plan of the Ministry of health. 9 of the people had returned negative test results. 

Only one student had returned positive test with our GeneXpert machine.

Fellow Solomon Islanders, the student had travelled to his village in Malaita province after being released from the quarantine station. 

The student was brought to Kilu’ufi hospital by the Ministry of Health to undertake his review and re-swabbing on 26th January 2020. He was perfectly healthy and was not sick. The swabbing was a planned follow-up by the Ministry of Health.

The swab was transferred to the  Molecular Lab in Honiara on the same day and showed a positive result on the GeneXpert machine on the evening of 26th January. 

Fellow citizens based on this result, the National Health Emergency Operation Centre [NHEOC] of the Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MHMS) activated its’ Emergency Response Plan’ to validate, track, and contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

They implemented the following four priorities swiftly.

  1. Firstly, to locate, re-swab and re-admit the Student – The NHEOC located the student who had travelled to Honiara by boat, within 3 hours of being advised of the result. They collected, swabbed, and admitted the student to the Field Hospital in rapid time.

I am very happy to inform the nation that the result of the repeat swab taken from the student tested NEGATIVE on both the GeneXpert machine and the qPCR machine.

This simply means the student did not have COVID-19 at the repeat testing at around 11pm on 26th January 2021. 

  1. Secondly, to urgently deploy of a field team to the student’s village to conduct urgent contact-tracing, awareness sessions, and to collect swabs from every individual in the village the student stayed in.

The field team flew to Auki at 6am yesterday (Wednesday) by a chartered Solomon Airlines flight. The field team to the village comprised staff from the NHEOC, Kilu’ufi hospital and Auki police. 

I am pleased to advise that the team had completed the contact tracing in the village. They conducted much needed education awareness and they collected swabs from more than 30 individuals. The swabs will be analysed at the Molecular lab on the team’s return to Honiara today.

  1. Thirdly, to undertake a Comprehensive Risk Assessment – The feedback from the student and relatives at the student’s village has enabled the NHEOC team to focus their risk assessment around, the student’s movements and locations over the past 2 – 3 weeks.

I am happy to inform the general public especially in Malaita and in Honiara that, based on their initial assessments, the Ministry of Health believes that the risk of COVID-19 community transmission is low at this stage. 

The results of swabs taken in the village where he stayed at in Malaita will give a better indication of the risk-level in the village and the other locations the student has travelled to in the past 2 weeks.

In this regard, I am happy to inform the public that our NHEOC team has already established an up-to-date mapping of the student’s travel and lodging pattern over the past two weeks that will assist them in the event a broader contact tracing exercise is required.

  1. Fourthly, to urgently Set-up the Kilu’ufi Hospital’s COVID-19 Testing Capacity –  The head of the Molecular laboratory and two of his senior staff were deployed to Kiluúfi hospital by helicopter this morning to urgently set-up the COVID-19 testing capability at the Kiluúfi hospital laboratory. The field team will return on the helicopter return flight.

Fellow citizens, to summarise the sequence of events to date.

We have picked one positive COVID-19 case on 26 January 2020 from a routine follow-up test on a previously discharged student, 62 days after he was released from the quarantine station.

The student has been readmitted to the Field hospital the same day and has tested NEGATIVE on both the GeneXpert and qPCR machines.

A field team had been deployed to the student’s village in Malaita. Contact tracing had been completed in the village and swabs were collected in more than 30 individuals for analysis at the Molecular lab in Honiara.

A high-level team from the Molecular lab is in Kiluufi hospital today to install the GeneXpert machine to enable Kiluufi hospital to undertake COVID-19 tests in the hospital.

Based on feedback from the student, and the people our field team spoke to during the contact tracing, it is our view that the risk of a COVID-19 community transmission is still low.

We will await the results of the swabs collected at the student’s village before making further assessment and announcements on the risk level and what additional actions might need to be taken.

The Ministry of Health is confident that the first positive GeneXpert result is showing remnants of COVID-19 fragments and not actually live COVD-19 virus. This means that it will not be infective and can not therefore infect other people.

Fellow citizens, many of us are confused about the differences between the  GeneXpert machine and the qPCR machine. While I too struggle to fully understand that it has been explained to me in this way.

Both machines provide a quantitative measure of the level or concentration of the virus present in the nostril of the person that is infected by the virus.

The qPCR machine will detect the concentration of COVID-19 Virus in the sample being tested. The test result will range from negative, weakly positive to very strongly positive. 

To an extent it is similar to the result of your malaria slide test where the microscopist usually writes a ‘1 plus’ for low parasite count to a ‘4 plus’ for very high parasite count. 

So, for the qPCR, there is a cut-off between the positive and the negative, although sometime there is an in-between in which case another swab is collected to validate.

The GeneXpert machine does the same assessment as the qPCR. However, it is a lot more sensitive machine than the qPCR. So, it can pick up Covid-19 virus fragments that could be remnants of dead viruses that are not necessarily infective even when the qPCR result is negative.

This difference explains why sometimes, a person’s test can come back negative for qPCR, and yet could show a weak positive for GeneXpert. Whenever this occurs, a repeat swab is usually taken and retested in both machines to validate the results.

So, for our purposes in Solomon Islands, a qPCR positive or negative result can be taken as the basis of our reporting and our GeneXpert being more sensitive, is extremely useful in also following up of cases that maybe qPCR negative but show a positive GeneXpert result.

Fellow citizens, the key message I have this afternoon is for all of us to remain calm and allow our health professionals to complete their analysis.

After we know the results of the swabs collected from the student’s village in Malaita, we will be in a much better position to provide further focussed advice.

At this point it is our view we do not have community transmission. 

Therefore, there is no need for any lock-down in any part of the country.

Our Front-liners have the situation covered. I commend our front-liners for their rapid response to locate and admit the student, and for moving very quickly on contact tracing.

Fellow citizens we should have the results from the swabs taken from individuals at the student’s village within 24-48 hours after they arrive at the Molecular laboratory at the NRH.

We will then come back to you at that point on further updates on this situation.

On the broader COVID-19 front, I am very happy to report that our two footballers from the UK that had remained positive had finally tested negative. 

However, given the length of time the two had been positive, we have not yet declared them free of COVID-19. We will wait for the next 3 consecutive negative tests before we declare the free of COVID.

We are currently watching one of the students that returned from Manila in the last flight a week ago that could turn positive. Again, we hope that would not be the case, but if it does get confirmed that he is positive, we will manage him in our isolation facility at the Field hospital.

On a brighter note, we have submitted our application for the first doses of vaccines to cover the first 0.25% of our population. We have already committed to procure through the COVAX facility adequate vaccines to cover 50% of our population in the first instance.

Fellow Citizens let us always look to our Lord, our God for his never-ending blessing in our country and our people.

In God we trust. He will continue to protect us during this pandemic.

Let me close with a quote from the Book of Psalms Chapter 121 verse 1, and I quote ….

I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth….”  Close quote

The same God will bless and guide Solomon Islands and will protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The same God will help us prevent any community transmission of COVID-19.

To God be the Glory, great things He has done.

May God bless our Beloved Solomon Islands from shore to shore.

Thank you all for your attention.

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