Tracing and retesting of 111 people, whose Covid-19 samples were lost when criminals pounced on a courier truck during a heist in Port Elizabeth on Monday, is underway.
National Health Laboratory Service spokesperson Mzimasi Gcukumana said: “The NHLS have allocated healthcare workers to contact the patients and make arrangements to collect new samples.”
The bio-hazard samples went missing on Monday when two workers, from a courier company hired by the NHLS to collect samples from local clinics, were ambushed by two gunmen.
The incident happened at 15:30 in Motherwell’s NU 11 section. The truck was found abandoned 500m away with the samples missing. The courier drivers were also robbed at gunpoint of their cellphones.
The police are investigating a case of hijacking. The suspects remain at large, confirmed police spokesperson Colonel Priscila Naidu.
A police source close to the case said the 111 test samples were collected from seven clinics in the area.
NHLS provincial manager Tabita Makula had revealed that the hijacking prevented the courier employees from collecting more samples at other clinics.
Gcukumana said: “NHLS condemns in the strongest terms the criminal act that occurred in Port Elizabeth, after one of the courier services’ vehicles was hijacked while delivering the Covid-19 samples to the laboratory for testing.
“This shocking and appalling behaviour puts the lives of members of the public at risk and has a negative impact on the NHLS’ efforts in assisting the government in the fight against the coronavirus disease in South Africa. The loss of the test samples places not only the patients and their families at risk, but it could also infect anyone who comes into contact with the stolen samples.”
These criminal incidents placed further pressure on already stretched resources, said Gcukumana.
The laboratory services institute also warned the robbers and the public not to touch the samples, as they may be highly infectious.
The samples were stored in cooler boxes with ice packs to keep temperatures at cool levels.
The incident happened three weeks after a jogger found specimens dumped on the N2 roadside outside East London on 29 June.
The courier company involved in the earlier incident admitted that the 80 samples had fallen through the bakkie’s opened canvas cover. The company was later fired for negligence and risk to human life.
Gcukumana said anyone who came across the missing samples should call the Port Elizabeth NHLS laboratory on 041 495 6158.
Naidu said: “The investigation is still underway, and no suspects have been found at the moment. We are following leads. We urge anyone who may have information that may lead to the arrest of the two suspects to please call the police or report to the nearest police station.”