Non-governmental organisation Brac has decided to halt all Covid-19 sample collection activities after August 31 this year.
Brac has set up 97 booths across the country since the virus outbreak began in Bangladesh.
In a letter to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) sent on July 27, the organisation stated that 38 sample collection booths in the capital, which are funded by Brac, will be shut down after that date.
However, the remaining 59 booths across the country, set up by Brac and operated by different healthcare facilities, will continue to collect samples for novel coronavirus testing.
Pointing out that Brac's move will cause the ongoing Covid-19 testing activities to become more limited due a lack of samples, experts said, determining the extent of infections could become difficult in the coming days.
In the letter to DGHS Director General Prof Abul Bashar Khurshid Alam, Assistant Director of Brac's Health, Nutrition, and Population Programme Morsheda Chowdhury requested the health directorate take the necessary steps to exempt Brac from sample collection activities.
Morsheda further stated that after a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the DGHS and Brac, the organisation has been collecting Covid-19 samples since May 11. Brac will stop its sample collection activities after August 31.
At present, 38 sample collection booths from Brac are collecting samples in different parts of the capital, and submitting them to the government designated labs.
The activities of the booths are now being conducted on a limited scale, and they will shut down completely by the end of this month.
According to the DGHS, Brac has been collecting novel coronavirus samples from 97 booths across the country. Of those, 66 booths are for the general public in the Dhaka division, and 20 are in areas under the Dhaka North City Corporation for those planning to go abroad.
Further, there are four booths in Cumilla, six in Chittagong and one in Bhairab.
Professor Nazrul Islam, a noted virologist and former vice-chancellor of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told The Business Standard, "This is not the time to shut down those booths."
"Even if 25 samples are collected in a booth per day, it will be a valuable contribution. Brac is a renowned organisation and they are collecting samples in the right way. Therefore, steps should be taken to continue their sample collection activities," he added.
He further said, "The number of patients will increase by August 15. We must conduct more tests, so that the infected people can be identified and isolated. Everyone must continue to follow hygiene rules. Only then it will be possible to curb the Covid-19 infections."
Relatively fewer tests were being conducted in the country at the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Later, the number of daily tests gradually increased to 18,000. However, at present it is fluctuating between 10,000 and 12,000.
Under such circumstances, 38 booths – set up by Brac in different parts of the capital – will be shut down after August 31. This will further limit the rate of sample collection.
The number of Covid-19 tests was much lower in the country during the Eid holidays.
At that time, Professor Nasima Sultana, additional director general of the DGHS, told BBC Bangla that Brac was collecting samples from Dhaka and Chittagong. Brac's booths were closed for three days due to decreased sample collection and testing.
Prof Muzaherul Huq, former adviser to the World Health Organization's Southeast Asia region, said, "Instead of shutting down sample collection booths, more should be set up at the upazila level. There are no PCR labs in 42 districts of the country as yet."
"Such labs should be set up in those districts and booths in the upazilas to collect samples. The move will reduce the hassles many people face while getting tested for Covid-19," he added.
He continued, "Brac needs to be encouraged to keep those booths running. Otherwise, the government will have to take responsibility for all the booths. There is no way sample collection booths should be closed at this time," he continued.
Responding to a query, Director General of DGHS Prof Abul Bashar Khurshid Alam said, "We will keep sample collection booths running anyway. We talked to Brac about this."
"If they do not keep the booths operational, the government will take them over," he added.