May 8, 2020 / 1:36 PM / a month ago

Indonesia provinces blame reagents, labs for stalling COVID-19 testing

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian provinces have blamed flawed distribution of reagents, too few laboratories and a lack of expertise for preventing them from getting near President Joko Widodo’s target of 10,000 coronavirus tests a day in the country.

FILE PHOTO: A medical worker wearing a protective suit draws blood from a man for the preliminary coronavirus disease (COVID-19) blood test in Pekanbaru, Riau Province, Indonesia, April 2, 2020 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/FB Anggoro/ via REUTERS

Medical experts have criticized Indonesia for its low testing rate, which potentially masks the scale of its COVID-19 outbreak, with only around 50 tests per 100,000 people compared with 2,500 per 100,000 in neighbouring Singapore.

According to notes of a meeting between regional health authorities and Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force, Indonesia’s testing rate as of Wednesday was 4,000-5,000 specimens a day.

Health authorities in the easternmost province of Papua said there was a shortage of reagents and limited human resources, according to the notes reviewed by Reuters.

The province of Central Java, for example, was only capable of testing 600 samples a day despite their 900-sample intake, the notes said.

Riau province said 12,000 reagents allotted to them were inadvertently sent to a different province with a similar name, Riau Islands.

Achmad Yurianto, a senior health ministry official, confirmed the contents of the notes and said there were 76 labs capable of conducting tests, but only 53 were operational, due to issues of access and distribution of reagents.

“With flights cancelled, distribution of reagents, medicine, and PPE was hampered,” he said, referring to personal protective equipment.

Indonesia banned air and sea travel to contain the spread of the coronavirus two weeks ago, though the transport ministry has confirmed that flights and public transport will resume under certain conditions. Yurianto said the resumption would help ease the flow of medical supplies.

Yurianto cited the example of how tests in North Kalimantan on Borneo island could not be sent to Surabaya, a city on Java island, over 1,200 kilometers away, which hosts the designated labs for the region.

“This is a very complex issue. Even when the labs are operational, but (the reagents) are in Jakarta. How can we send them to Papua when the travel ban is still in place?” he said.

The COVID-19 illness, caused by the new coronavirus, has infected 13,112 people in Indonesia and killed 943 according to official figures, the highest death toll in East Asia outside China.

“Labs remain the weakest link in Indonesia’s health services,” said Pandu Riono, a public health expert at the University of Indonesia. “The needs to test are getting more rapid now.”

Editing by Ed Davies

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