ISLAMABAD: Fewer than 500 Pakistanis have as yet been tested for the coronavirus, the country’s health minister has said, raising concerns about missed chances by the government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak, a measure that could make containment easier.
Pakistani health officials put the tally of confirmed cases of the novel virus at 94 on Monday morning. The first confirmed case in Pakistan emerged on Feb. 26.
Experts say they have no way of knowing the true national figures because access to testing is severely limited at present in the nation of 208 million people. They have also faulted Pakistan’s narrow testing criteria.
Currently, individuals with flu-like symptoms are only tested if they have traveled to a country where the virus is spreading, triggering fears there are far more cases in Pakistan than currently recorded, which could compromise the nation’s response effort in the coming weeks.
By this point in its outbreak, South Korea — where a downward trend in daily cases has raised hopes that Asia’s biggest epidemic outside China may be slowing — had already tested more than 100,000 people for the disease and was testing roughly 15,000 people every day.
“I think we are nearing around more than 400,” Minister of Health Dr. Zafar Mirza told Arab News in an interview Sunday evening when asked how many people had been tested for the coronavirus so far.
The minister explained that only people who had returned from countries where the virus had spread and those with whom they had interacted and who, in turn, had developed symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection were being tested.
“Apart from this, nobody needs testing,” Mirza said.
When asked about reports that officials at a helpline set up to assist citizens who suspected they had coronavirus symptoms were discouraging them from getting tested unless they had traveled to virus-hit countries, Mirza said: “They should be discouraged … Over here, every person who has a cold suspects that they have coronavirus; they will exhaust all our (testing) kits.”
Mirza said no senior government officials were currently at risk from the virus and denied reports of two deaths in the city of Sehwan, in the southern Sindh province, where 76 of Pakistan’s total 94 cases have been confirmed.
Pakistan borders China and Iran, both of which have been badly hit by the virus. Pakistan reported its first locally contracted case on Friday, though officials say most Pakistanis with infections had recently traveled to Iran.
Last week, Pakistan announced it would temporarily shut all land borders and limit international flights and public gatherings to halt the spread of the disease.
Mirza said the country had tracked and screened around 6,000 Pakistanis who had returned from Iran since February and knew about the whereabouts of all incoming travelers.
Around 1 million people have also been screened for fever with thermometer guns and checked for signs of a cough or difficulty in breathing — common symptoms of the coronavirus — at entry points to the country, the minister added.
To estimate the true size of the outbreak in Pakistan, however, testing for the virus itself must become widely available.
Between the provinces and the center, Pakistan currently has about 25,000 kits at hand, the health minister said, and has placed a number of large orders, including for more than 100,000 kits from Canada. He stated that the country would be able to produce its own testing equipment “within weeks.”
Responding to Chinese media reports, in which Chinese foreign ministry officials were quoted as saying Pakistan had donated its entire inventory of protective masks to China after the coronavirus first broke out there late last year, Mirza said: “This is nonsense …Can a country be so irresponsible as to send all their protection equipment to another?”
The minister could not provide specific figures for how many beds had been assigned to coronavirus patients across Pakistan but admitted that there was a shortage of ventilators.
According to 2014 data from the World Health Organization, Pakistan has 0.60 hospital beds per 1,000 people. Indeed, like most South Asian countries, the nation’s health care infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with any large-scale emergency.
Mirza said the prime minister had approved a request for Rs5 billion ($31,446,540.50) to be used by the National Disaster Management authority to combat the spread of the virus. Six provincial disaster management bodies had around Rs2 billion each, he said, and would get additional financial support from the provincial governments on an ad hoc basis.
“We have been approached by different multilateral and bilateral agencies and development partners,” Mirza said. “Around $200 million dollars have been offered to us by World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and different countries.”
Speaking about the government’s communication strategy, the minister said health officials have been using TV channels to send out public service messages about the disease daily. Beginning on Monday, advertisements would begin appearing in national dailies, educating people on symptoms and prevention. A new website for the health ministry and a dashboard, which would provide real-time data on case numbers, would also be uploaded on Monday, Mirza said.
Facebook has agreed to give ad credits worth $50,000 to the government for coronavirus-related awareness campaigns.
Mirza said Pakistan has set up ten “disease surveillance units” across the country, comprising rapid response teams, and that hundreds of people were now involved in screening and contact tracing efforts. Paramilitary Rangers have also been deployed at the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports since last week so that the screening of passengers could be done in a “disciplined way,” he added.
“No country is equipped to face an outbreak like this,” Mirza said when asked if Pakistan’s leadership and medical infrastructure were ready to contain the virus should it spread more quickly. “It’s an imminent threat, and we are trying to do our best according to the resources at our disposal.”
When asked if Pakistan would declare a national health emergency in the near future over fears the virus could spread, the minister replied that there was no need.