MOH Mulls Mass Testing Red Zones To Study True Epidemic

The Ministry of Health is considering using rapid antibody tests and raises the need for cooperation with private clinics.

KUALA LUMPUR, April 20 — The Ministry of Health (MOH) said it may conduct population-based antibody tests in Covid-19 red zones to identify the real extent of the epidemic.

These rapid antibody tests in areas with more than 40 Covid-19 cases are not meant to diagnose coronavirus infection, but to look at people who were previously infected but not detected, as it takes about a week to develop antibodies to the virus.

“This is one of the studies we can look at in terms of the transmission of the virus in the community,” Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah told a press conference today.

“What is important is to see how we can do the tests. Maybe we need close cooperation with private clinics so we can get the latest data for appropriate action.”

The antibody rapid test kits produce results in minutes with just a single drop of blood, unlike PCR tests that require swabs and samples to be sent to the laboratory that can take 24 to 48 hours for results. The latter is used for diagnosis of Covid-19.

Rather than mass testing, an approach used by developed countries like South Korea, MOH uses a targeted testing strategy by identifying high-risk groups and locations to contain Covid-19 clusters. All residents are tested only if they live in areas under the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO), with MOH saying that test positivity results in such areas was only 0.5 per cent. Test positivity refers to the percentage of positive results among those tested.

Targeted testing includes the possibility of missing out people with mild or no symptoms. International research estimates that between 5 per cent and 80 per cent testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the Covid-19 disease, could be asymptomatic, according to veteran physician Dr Milton Lum, who raised concern about Covid-19 “silent spreaders”.

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Dr Nirmala Bhoo Pathy has supported MOH’s targeted testing approach in a resource-strapped middle income country like Malaysia, saying that rapid antibody tests to study the true pattern of the epidemic in certain areas could be done if research funding was available.

Covid-19 red zones in Malaysia are predominantly located in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

The Selangor state government is currently running Covid-19 community screening in red zones, like Hulu Langat, to identify high-risk groups like senior citizens who do not show any symptoms.

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