Like many other businesses in Malta and around the world, once the pandemic hit our shores in March 2020, we were faced with a lot of challenges,” says Elena Zarb, Lead Clinical Pharmacist at Brown’s Pharma, acknowledging how the global pandemic has impacted the lives and livelihoods of many, near and far.
Addressing the challenges brought about by COVID-19, Dr Zarb says that for Brown’s, the main challenge was adopting agile and innovative methods of operating. “The pharmacy profession is all about people-to-people contact – we love to be there for our clients,” she explains, affirming that their primary focus was to maintain a healthy workforce so as to ensure a continuous and seamless service to the communities they serve. “We were committed to the healthy well-being of the people we are responsible for,” she says.
Having graduated as a Pharmacist from the University of Malta and reading for a Doctorate in Pharmacy in Malta in collaboration with the University of Illinois, Dr Zarb began her journey with Brown’s Pharma as a Managing Pharmacist at one of its pharmacies, going on to pursue her studies while in full-time employment, and eventually specialising in the provision of patient-focused services and evidencebased treatment.
As Lead Clinical Pharmacist within the largest retail pharmacy chain in Malta, Dr Zarb pioneered the one-on-one client service provided across the company’s outlets. The first of its kind in Malta, it provides individualised pharmaceutical care and enables the community pharmacist to support patients with chronic conditions. Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Zarb was entrusted with leading Brown’s latest innovative project, Brown’s COVID-19 Screening Services.
The company established Brown’s + HSE Screening Centre in November 2020, in order to offer fast, professional and reliable diagnostic testing. “Brown’s and HSE Laboratories have specialised in COVID-19 Screening Testing to help curb spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing capacity and improving accessibility of screening tests that detect active COVID-19 infection, without delays in receipt of test results,” she explains.
She describes the aim of the screening service as that of safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of individuals, whilst ensuring that a safe environment is maintained by containing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping infection rates low in Malta, and by reducing active, imported and widespread transmission of the virus.
The collaboration, she continues, brings to bear the collective experience and reputation garnered by both parties, with Brown’s Pharma and HSE Laboratories working tirelessly to ensure excellence in the provision of a holistic, professional, and easily accessible COVID-19 testing service. “The synergy of the parties brings the needed expertise and peace of mind to the end user and the community,” she describes.
Meanwhile, detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) outline all the processes followed within the organisation to ensure that the professionals delivering the service offer an excellent customer experience. Dr Zarb also affirms that health and safety policies are in place to ensure that services are offered from clean, safe and secure environments whilst always complying with all regulations.
“In the past months, thousands of clients have used the service. We have gained experience in handling large groups of individuals, their personal data and processing of their test results,” she maintains.
Detailing the services available, Dr Zarb explains that Brown’s currently offers two types of COVID-19 tests: RT-PCR tests and Rapid Antigen tests. Breaking down the difference between the two in clinical terms, she maintains that the Rapid Antigen diagnostic test detects the presence of viral proteins (or antigens) expressed by the COVID-19 virus in the respiratory tract within 15-30 minutes.
“The antigens detected are expressed only when the virus is actively replicating; therefore, such tests are best used to identify acute or early infection. The test would provide a qualitative ‘yes/no’ answer on the presence of the virus in the patient sample,” she notes, adding that this type of test serves as a valuable initial screening test for individuals that have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 infected patients, or those who are in high-risk environments.
Meanwhile, an RT-PCR is a molecular test that detects virus genetic material using a laboratory technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). “RT-PCR is considered the gold standard in diagnostic testing for COVID-19,” Dr Zarb says, describing it as the ideal diagnostic since it is both specific and sensitive, even at extremely low viral concentrations.
“An RT-PCR is considered the most sensitive method for COVID-19 testing, since the system amplifies viral genetic material by replicating it,” she explains, emphasising that any traces of the virus will be detected, and will confirm if the patient has an active COVID-19 virus infection. “The RT-PCR test is the ideal test for individuals who are symptomatic, or for those that were in contact with persons who previously tested positive,” Dr Zarb says.
Speaking of the crucial function of COVID-19 testing in relation to local business – including the iGaming industry, which is counted among the major contributors to the Maltese economy – the Lead Clinical Pharmacist maintains that having COVID-19 testing widely available gives the industry the right tools to reignite business-tobusiness and peer-to-peer business functions.
“Organising large meetings and gatherings is now more feasible, albeit with restrictions,” she says, highlighting that “the availability of these tests, together with Malta’s excellent epidemiological situation and the success of the vaccination programme, are all components that will help not just the iGaming Industry, but even tourism, international sporting events, international mass events (eventually), the sector of English language teaching, and even the local film industry.”
Describing the film industry as being among the only ones that continued to operate to a certain degree of normality, citing “regular testing for all cast and crew of the productions which were filmed in Malta over the months of the pandemic,” she adds, “we at Brown’s are particularly proud and honoured to have been entrusted with this task.”
Meanwhile, as international travel takes off again, many countries require travellers to present a negative PCR test before entering the country. Dr Zarb attests that even before the pandemic hit the world, it had already been established that RT-PCR is the gold standard methodology, offering reliability and accuracy in the field of virology.
“People around the world have deprived themselves of travelling out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Now that the situation is reverting to normal and people have begun to cross borders, the RT-PCR and the antigen test can offer peace of mind to those in transit, together with ensuring containment across countries,” she maintains. Indeed, with the tourism industry among those most badly hit by the pandemic, which in return has a negative impact on the economy, Dr Zarb says that testing ensures that a safe environment is maintained by containing the spread and keeping infection rates low by reducing active, imported and widespread transmission.
“This is why COVID-19 testing has been, and will remain, important as most countries around the world have now started to reopen their borders,” the Pharmacist continues, offering a suggestion to travellers to properly check where they can find testing facilities in the country they are visiting, and to also check whether this can be booked in advance. “As we now move into an era where the vaccination certificate will also be used, it is even more important to check the COVID-19 entry requirements of each country, as some countries might still demand a negative PCR test for entry/exit,” she says.
Finally, as the world yearns for a return to pre-pandemic normality and vaccination drives continue to roll out across the globe, Dr Zarb reveals that COVID-19 testing may be important for a while yet. “It is still unclear if the vaccines prevent individuals from getting infected and transmitting the virus, with some clinical studies demonstrating that vaccination does lead to a drop in the viral load but does not completely eliminate the number of COVID-19 infections,” she states.
“Vaccinated individuals could potentially still become infected and spread the virus to others, therefore COVID-19 testing and observation of hand hygiene and social distancing is still considered important to control COVID-19 transmission moving forward,” Dr Zarb concludes.
This interview was first carried in the summer edition of iGaming Capital magazine, the sister brand to iGamingCapital.mt
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