KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 9 — Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah today said that the Institute of Medical Research’s (IMR) Virology Unit had created a reagent — a substance or compound used in chemical analysis —  to handle the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a week before the World Health Organisation (WHO) created a similar protocol.

He said the unit had been on standby since January 3 when news of a potential pandemic spread.

"On January 11 when Chinese scientists released information on the virus, using the Conventional RT-CPR method, our local unit developed a series of reagents named “primers and probes specific for 2019-nCoV” on the same day.

“Several days later WHO released its own protocol to handle the real-time RT-PCR 2019-nCoV tests and this protocol was almost similar to the one we were using in IMR.

“That reagent, to identify the 2019-nCoV virus, arrived at IMR’s labs on January 21. The following day officers at IMR managed to optimise the real-time tests for RT-PCR 2019-nCoV and this sample was handed to the National Public Health Laboratory in Sungai Buloh Hospital on the 24th to test the contact sample from Johor,” Noor Hisham said in a statement today.

He further explained that on January 30, IMR conducted training for real-time RT-PCR testing for 12 hospitals in Ipoh, Kota Kinabalu, Kota Bharu, and Johor.

Dr Noor Hisham added that staff at all the hospitals who were trained to handle 2019-nCoV cases have been working around the clock since the virus was declared a global health emergency.

He said every day — including public holidays — staff on call would receive samples at the hospital as early as 7am and would proceed to conduct the tests necessary to identify the virus.

“This is to ensure the results were out within 24 hours but most times they managed to provide us with the results well ahead of 24 hours. Only staff who’ve been through a competency test and are wearing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) properly are allowed to conduct the tests.

“So, kudos and congratulations on a great job to all the staff at IMR, public health centres and hospital labs for working day and night to curb the spread of this virus. Even though at times it’s unclear in the eyes of the public, you are the unsung heroes of this nation," he said.