Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Perfil

ARGENTINA | 04-04-2020 11:25

Underfunded and underpaid, staff at Malbrán Institute battle against coronavirus

The ANLIS-Malbrán Institute is on the front line against the Covid-19 pandemic but over the last decade the research institute has suffered heavy cuts.

The Administración Nacional de Laboratorios e Institutos de Salud “Dr. Carlos Malbrán” (from now, Malbrán Institute) was inaugurated in 1916 and has played a fundamental role in microbiological research in Argentina, fighting the most dangerous epidemics in the country since its creation. At present, the research institute, which falls under the Health Ministry, is the main organism struggling against the coronavirus pandemic, though it also has tackled historic diseases such as dengue and measles.

The Malbrán is the only health institute in Argentina which can diagnose Covid-19 within 24 to 48 hours. Such testing forms part of the requirements of the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a global measure to slow down the pandemic.

Although the research institute’s strategic work is enabling Argentina to slow down the curve of contagion, Perfil warns in this report that the Malbrán has suffered budget losses in recent years, along with the possibility of incorporating skilled staff and new researchers.

Following the last pandemic of avian flu (H1N1), the Malbrán received a budget increase, passing from 471 million pesos in 2009 to 535 million in 2010 for a growth of 13 percent, its highest budget increase in the last decade. The investment served to equip laboratories in the various jurisdictions nationwide, resources which today are being used to decentralise the tasks of the institution in the rapid diagnosis of coronavirus.

According to a report prepared by the directive committee of the Asociación de Profesionales del Instituto Malbrán (Aproinm), the organism’s budget grew 262 percent between 2009 and 2019 but, in the report seen by Perfil, this was a nominal increase in pesos which does not take into account the accumulated inflation in the last decade nor the peso’s devaluation against the dollar, the currency needed for material and inputs indispensable for the Malbrán.

In that same period the accumulated inflation, according to both private measurements and INDEC statistics bureau, has been estimated at 337 percent while the dollar passed from 3.70 pesos in 2009 to 63.09 pesos at the end of 2019, representing a leap superior to 1,500 percent.

In the case of the costs of reagents and equipment, it must be borne in mind that the Malbrán uses inputs quoted in foreign currency because they are imported. This means that although the nominal budget increases, in real terms purchasing-power is reduced due to peso devaluation.

However, an analysis of budget data in relation to figures supplied by the Economy Ministry and INDEC, the institute suffered cuts in the period from 2010 to 2019. Statistics glossed by Chequeado fact-checkers establish that, although increased in 2010 to tackle avian flu, in real terms its budget was dropped to 313 million pesos in 2019 – its lowest point since 2006.

In the current crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, President Alberto Fernández modified the Malbrán budget to award an extraordinary increase of 1.7 billion pesos via emergency administrative resolution 403/2020.

STAFFING ISSUES

The impossibility of incorporating skilled staff is another major challenge facing the Malbrán.

“Since 2015 the budget has been frozen and if a professional must be sent abroad for training, that requires foreign currency too. Inflation is terrible for financing because the budget is in pesos and that prevents the entry of new staff,” Rubén Romero, the secretary for Infectious Diseases and the delegate for ATE state workers trade union at the Malbrán, told Perfil.

Between 2010 and 2015 the Malbrán began to regularise jobs, opening public tenders to incorporate employees into the permanent staff while in the first half of 2017, Congress opened up state employment, including the incorporation of 75 persons for administrative training at the Malbrán.

The Malbrán currently has 1,100 workers between specialists and administrative personnel. Nevertheless, according to Aproinm, nobody has entered the Institute since 2015. Moreover, the tenders were for administrative staff, not the professionals who are working today to detect coronavirus in continually precarious conditions. Professionals at the Malbrán, including biochemists, bio-technicians, geneticists, pharmacists and doctors dedicated to research figure as transitory staff working under contract.

The starting salary for a specialist at the institution ranges between 24,000 and 39,000 pesos a month, depending on degree and professional qualification. With a seniority of 9-12 years after acquiring masters, post-doctoral or doctoral degrees, a specialist can reach a maximum net monthly salary of 70,000 pesos or US$1,070, a highly unfavourable level when compared to developed countries.

Taking the latest figures from the United States, a biochemist starting out earns on average a monthly US$6,000 – six times their Malbrán colleague. A biochemist dedicated to scientific research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, which has charge of the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, receives a monthly salary of approximately 5,000 euros, fivefold the level in Argentina. The basic starting monthly salary of a Spanish scientific professional is approximately 3,000 euros, thus trebling what could be earned at the Malbrán for fighting the same lethal pandemic.

The Institute is now headed by the Córdoba biochemist Pascual Fidelio, who took over last month when the first suspected cases of coronavirus in this count r y were being analysed. He replaced geneticist Claudia Perandones, who has been working at the Institute for 30 years and who continues working in scientific and technical coordination, where she is still consulted. According to the Health Ministry, this change had been planned since the beginning of the Frente de Todos administration. Both Fidelio and Perandones were contacted by Perfil but declined to comment.

NATIONWIDE

ANLIS-Malbrán (its formal name since the creation of the Administración Nacional de Laboratorios e Institutos de Salud in 1996) has 11 public health institutions nationwide in its charge. One of the most important is the National Institute for Infectious Diseases (INEI in its Spanish acronym), directed by Elsa Baumeister, who heads the Service for Respiratory Viral Infections.

The INEI is the main testing centre for the detection of coronavirus in Argentina. Its fundamental activity is to follow the spread of respiratory virus worldwide to preview its arrival in Argentina. But this new pandemic, which exploded a few months ago in China, has not given time for any anticipatory vigilance.

“The operational capacity of the Malbrán has reached its limit but if we have to double our work, we can do it,” Karina Lugones, the Institute’s press spokesperson, told Perfil.

Nevertheless, considering various factors such as the delays in transferring samples, given Argentina’s territorial extent and the transport difficulties, digital training is underway for the rapid diagnosis of coronavirus in laboratories in the City and Province of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Chaco, Misiones, Santa Fe and Tierra del Fuego.

This project of decentralisation will be extended in a second stage to 35 laboratories in all 24 national jurisdictions. Working via the Internet has a precedent from 2009 when it was used to treat avian flu (626 deaths) and since then has continued functioning for cases of common virus.

The professionalism at the Malbrán continues to be the greatest (and perhaps only) protection Argentina has against the pandemic.

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Nadia Dragneff

Nadia Dragneff

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