KUALA LUMPUR, March 26 — Doctors have criticised the Ministry of Health (MOH) for failing to take advantage of Malaysia’s head start in testing for the novel coronavirus.
MOH’s current policy, they noted, was only to test persons under investigation. Even persons under surveillance were not tested, but told to self-isolate for 14 days. This, they said, was probably due to a shortage of test kits and limited funding when China announced the first Covid-19 case last December 31.
Paediatricians Dr Musa Mohd Nordin and Dr Zulkifli Ismail said MOH had done extremely well in Malaysia’s early Covid-19 containment strategy under then-Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad in the Pakatan Harapan administration.
They pointed out that when scientists from China first released information on the Covid-19 viral genome last January 11, the team from the virology unit of Malaysia’s Institute of Medical Research (IMR), had already produced the “primers and probes” specific to SARS-CoV-2, or the novel coronavirus, on the very same day.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) reagent sequence (primers and probes) released several days later was very similar to the one produced in Malaysia’s IMR laboratory.
“So Malaysia actually had a head start in Covid-19 testing,” Dr Musa and Dr Zulkifli said in a joint statement yesterday.
They pointed out that Malaysia’s IMR even overtook the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that only approved the first US test on February 4, before later encountering problems with the coronavirus test.
IMR’s reagent, they said, was supplied to the National Public Health Laboratory in Sungai Buloh that diagnosed Malaysia’s first Covid-19 patient on January 24.
“Unfortunately, the MOH did not capitalise on this advantage and did not make the test more widely available to our rakyat.”Paediatricians Dr Musa Mohd Nordin & Dr Zulkifli Ismail
“The MOH did not follow closely the WHO’s 3 golden rules for epidemic control namely: TEST, TEST, and TEST again. This is not rocket science,” Dr Musa and Dr Zulkifli said.
“This is simply back to basics epidemiological detective work by public health teams to objectively define the burden of Covid-19 disease in the community, identify the clusters of infection and capture the persons who are infected but remain well and asymptomatic.”
The doctors expressed concern about coronavirus asymptomatic carriers, noting that a considerable percentage of Covid-19 carriers, some 12 per cent according to a study, can spread the disease for two to four days before exhibiting signs of fever, cough, and respiratory distress.
They said Malaysia’s Covid-19 test per million capita of 482 was higher than other countries in the region and several European nations, but lagged behind South Korea’s 3,692 tests per million capita and 2,820 in Guangdong, China.
“Trust us, Malaysia is not too late to ramp-up our Covid-19 testing,” Dr Musa and Dr Zulkifli said, urging the new Perikatan Nasional government to make coronavirus tests widely available and affordable.
Sungai Buloh Hospital, Malaysia’s main Covid-19 centre, and KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital were the first to imitate the South Korea model of drive-through Covid-19 testing.
“They have about 60 Drive-Thru stations throughout South Korea and were able to test up to 0.7 per cent of their 52-million population. They now know that 2.8 per 100 persons have been infected by SARS-CoV-2.”
MOH announced yesterday that it would conduct mass testing for Covid-19 in hotspot areas, targeting groups like tabligh participants and Rohingya refugees.
Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said MOH will increase testing to 16,000 tests daily next week, from the current 6,000 tests a day, and will look at the effectiveness of antigen rapid test kits this Friday.
Malaysia recorded nearly 1,800 coronavirus cases yesterday, the highest in the region, as well as 20 fatalities.