PETALING JAYA, 20 May 2020: Specialised swab sticks made in Malaysia are heading for clinical trials and, if approved, will pave the way for COVID-19 mass testing which is crucial to the country‘s exit from lockdown.
A team of public health and medical experts from around Malaysia has been working with the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA) and the Malaysian Petrochemicals Association (MPA) to make the specialised nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swab sticks and contribute 1.2 million swabs for the COVID-19 tests.
“Pre-clinical testing suggests that the swabs we produced are performing well,” said Professor Dr Tan Maw Pin from Universiti Malaya’s Medical Faculty. “Malaysia has a highly successful plastics industry which has been able to manufacture the polyester fibres and the plastics shafts which make up the swab,” she said.
“We are currently working to expedite the process of obtaining the necessary funding and approvals for clinical trials, as well as an approval from the Medical Devices Authority (MDA) so that the swabs can go into production and distribution as soon as possible,” she said. The swabs produced will be used for diagnostic testing for flu and other virus illness in future and will continue to be useful even after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Dr Tan is part of the team drawn from experts from Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), Hospital Pulau Pinang, Perdana Universiti-Royal College of Surgeons (PU-RCSI) in Ireland, and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) as well as Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Medical Faculty.
“The ability to conduct mass testing is critical to lifting the Movement Control Order (MCO), and nose swabs are critical to mass testing,” she added. “Buying the millions of nose swabs needed from overseas is probably not feasible at this time,” said Professor Dr Tan.
Malaysia currently does not have any facilities to make these swabs, which are expected to be in short supply world-wide, said MPMA President Datuk Lim Kok Boon. “Malaysia needs to be self-sufficient in producing these specialised swabs which are in high demand around the world now,” he said.
The US, where Malaysia’s main suppliers are, has banned the export of medical goods which includes these swabs. Alternative suppliers are in Italy and are also struggling to keep up with demand. China makes these swabs but there are hurdles in securing supply amid high demand and in importing and transporting the swabs.
This initiative is in partnership with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) which has allowed resumption of operations to manufacturers of essential plastics products since the beginning of the Movement Control Order on 18 March 2020.
The team of experts was able to identify and contact local factories which agreed to repurpose their production lines to make the different components for the swabs.
“Our members worked very quickly and very hard to resolve and overcome technical obstacles to be able to make the swab material using high quality polyester fibers,” said Lim Kok Boon.
“Malaysia is home to some of the biggest resin producers in South-east Asia and we are confident that we have the capacity to scale up and sustain this initiative for the long run,” said President of MPA, Akbar Mohd Thayoob (from Petronas Chemical Group Bhd).
The swab sticks must be made from synthetic material such as polyester fibers and plastics shafts as natural materials such as wood, cotton and paper contain DNA which would interfere with the tests. Also, the swab sticks have to be flexible enough to insert into the nose cavity.
Precision shafts for the swabs will be produced by Heveaplast (M) Sdn Bhd, a precision plastics extrusion manufacturer which will be contributing by producing the 1.2 million swabs. For this purpose, Heveaplast has modified its plastics extrusion process leveraging on its latest extrusion machine’s optical measurement feature. The shafts are made of polypropylene, which are being sponsored by Lotte Chemical Titan (M) Sdn Bhd, Malaysia’s first and leading producer of olefins and polyolefins.
Silicon Creation Sdn Bhd has undertaken to wind the swabs onto the tips of the shafts, with the swabbing material of polyester staple fiber sponsored by Recron Malaysia Sdn Bhd. Recron Malaysia is an integrated polyester and textile producer with manufacturing facilities in Melaka and Nilai, Negeri Sembilan.