Rapid tests good news for pandemic-ravaged Asia

The lack of timely information has meant the nation is still struggling to tame its first wave of infections. While there are signs the curve is flattening, in the capital Jakarta close to 1000 new cases are still identified every day. On Monday, the national total increased by 3509 to a total of 278,722 confirmed cases and 10,473 deaths.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan this week extended large-scale restrictions for another two weeks

Early on in the pandemic, when Indonesia struggled to administer more than a few hundred polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests a day, the government of President Joko Widodo backed the use of antibody tests as a way of reducing costs and speeding up diagnosis.

Health experts criticised this decision, saying antibody tests were not accurate enough. Antigen tests are different, said Pandu Riono, professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Indonesia.

“In the era of contagion, the most important thing is to detect the virus. The accuracy of the antigen test is good enough to use in areas where the virus is still widespread and transmission is high,” Dr Pandu said.

The antigen test is also much cheaper than PCR tests. These DNA tests are the gold standard but they cost about 700,000 Indonesian rupiah ($67.50), while antigen tests are between 100,000 and 200,000 Indonesian rupiah .

A joint venture between the diagnostic industry in Bandung, West Java and South Korea’s GenBody last month began producing antigen tests approved by WHO and Indonesia’s Ministry of Health.

So far, 300,000 have been made, on the way to reaching a monthly capacity of 1.4 million tests. Other manufacturers are also expected to begin production and soon antigen tests will be distributed beyond Java to South Sumatra and Aceh.

Economic impact

On Monday, the World Bank urged Asian and Pacific countries to up their testing and tracing to help mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

While the Vietnamese and Chinese economies are recovering, the World Bank expects East Asia and the Pacific to grow by just 0.9 per cent in 2020, the lowest rate since 1967.

Many of those who earn little will earn even less, with poverty expected to increase for the first time in two decades. Up to 38 million risk sliding back or stuck earning below the poverty line, measured at $US5.50 ($7.75) a day.

“COVID-19 is not only hitting the poor the hardest, it is creating ‘new poor’. The region is confronted with an unprecedented set of challenges, and governments are facing tough choices,” said Victoria Kwakwa, vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank.

“But there are smart policy options available that can soften these trade-offs, such as investing in testing and tracing capacity and durably expanding social protection to cover the poor and the informal sector.”


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