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University of Johannesburg’s new mobile laboratory-on...

South Africa


University of Johannesburg’s new mobile laboratory-on-wheels targets disaster areas

A woman holds her grandson in the village of Buzi after the passage of cyclone Idai in the province of Sofala, central Mozambique, 28 March 2019. Reports state that some 1.7 million people are said to be affected across southern Africa. EPA-EFE/TIAGO PETINGA

With floods such as those in KwaZulu-Natal, Mozambique and Zimbabwe recently, clean water sources can become contaminated with bacteria that can cause diseases. Finding samples of this potentially contaminated water at the source, then driving back to a laboratory can be time-consuming when urgency is required. UJ's Health Science faculty has come up with a solution to make the process a bit more simple: A mobile laboratory.

The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Health Science Faculty launched a mobile laboratory on Tuesday, 14 March – a laboratory on wheels that has been described as a shell that can be customised to suit the needs of the team using it, wherever they need to be.

Those involved in seeing what was merely a dream become a reality are engulfed by a plethora of emotions.

There is a mixture of emotions, but we feel accomplished that this is finally done and extremely happy to finally be in a position to share our dream and product with everyone,” said Professor Tobias Barnard, director of the Water and Health Research Centre at UJ, who headed the project.

The institution said the motivation for the project had been the need for urgency when examining water potentially contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.

Events such as the Vaal Dam sewage spill in 2018, the recent spilling of sewage into Durban Harbour, and floods such as those that wreaked havoc in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, were cited as among the potential situations where a mobile lab would be extremely useful.

We believe that this will enable people to monitor water faster on site during outbreaks or emergency situations such as the Mozambique flooding,” Barnard told Daily Maverick.

In all of the above-mentioned incidents, the water that thousands of people rely on was contaminated either by sewage or by pollution from flooding, putting people at risk of waterborne diseases.

With the mobile lab, the detection of bacteria that cause illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid fever and cholera is set to become a bit simpler.

In these situations, it is critical to test the water and get the results quickly. Armed with the results, water can then be made safe for use,” read a statement by UJ.

The project was years in the making, Barnard said — 12 years, to be exact.

We started working on the mobile lab concept in 2007 when we entered the Moola for Amanzi competition. We finally received funding from the Technology Innovation Agency in 2017 and from there it took 12 months to get the designs finalised and the first model built,” Barnard told Daily Maverick.

In the past, a research team built a field lab from scratch till deep in the night, after spending hours driving to a site.

Dr Kousar Hoorzook, who co-designed the lab alongside Barnard and industrial designer Robin Robertson, said:

We started asking ourselves: ‘Do we really have to build a field lab every time we go out to test water?’ That’s where the mobile lab idea was born.”

Another critical moment in its genesis was the Carolina, Mpumalanga, diarrhoea outbreak, Barnard said.

The then-minister of water and sanitation said she had to listen to moms crying about babies who were critically ill, asking: ‘Why can’t we sort this out now!’ And we knew we still had to go sample and drive three hours back to the laboratory, before we could even start the analysis,” he said.

Barnard says if at that moment they had had access to a lab on site, they could have worked a lot more efficiently. They could have started testing water at a household level.

We could tell people: ‘Bring in your water, and let’s make sure your water is okay.’ We could assist with treating water on site. We could assist the water treatment plant with testing additional to their own, so the water supplied to the community is safe for consumption.”

The lab is essentially a shell that can be customised to suit the needs of the team using it. It has a high road clearance and is towed by a 4×4 vehicle.

Its sample fridge, incubator, analysis equipment and air-conditioning run on solar panels, a generator and batteries.

The lab also carries its own safe water supply and a side tent to accommodate more testing equipment and staff needing shelter. Because it can operate without grid electricity or water, the mobile lab can stay on site for several days, if needed.

Elaborating on the convenience of the mobile lab, Barnard said:

What makes the mobile lab different is that it can be parked on site and some staff can start working, while others go to collect the water samples. You can do science on site, continuously, 24 hours a day, without the need to go back and forth between accommodation and a fixed laboratory in a city. The shift that needs sleep can camp in the side tent of the lab.”

Barnard says there are plans to expand on this success.

The plan is to start working on a business model that will enable more people to access and acquire the mobile laboratories. The big dream is to eventually have a whole network of satellite laboratories monitoring water and wastewater throughout the country at the same time,” he told Daily Maverick.

Barnard and Hoorzook are developing short courses to train staff in the standards and protocols required to operate the mobile lab.

They also have plans to put the lab to its maximum potential use in the near future, should the need arise.

We believe that with the newer technology available we can even look at setting the laboratory up to analyse human faecal samples in the future, to determine and track causative organisms during outbreaks,” said Barnard. DM


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