In Depth

Why everyone’s talking about coronavirus testing

WHO says governments must ‘test, test, test’

The UK government has vowed to accelerate coronavirus testing as health experts urge authorities worldwide to step up their screening efforts. 

The UK currently has 1,950 confirmed infections but the actual number of cases is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000, the BBC reports.

Amid fears that countless people in countries worldwide may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments to “test, test, test”.

Who is getting tested?

Testing is generally being carried out only on those admitted to hospital - and not everyone admitted is tested.

People with symptoms that do not require hospital treatment are instructed to self-isolate but have no way of knowing if they have the virus, which causes Covid-19 disease. 

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said this week that there is “complete surveillance” testing in intensive care and that hospitals are also testing patients with pneumonia.

When there is a cluster of infections - for instance, an outbreak in a care home - those people would also be tested, he added.

According to Whitty, Public Health England is “rapidly” developing “transformational” tests that can identify if people have had - rather than do have - the virus.

But many experts are concerned that health workers - including doctors and nurses on the front line - are not being tested.

An unnamed nurse told The Guardian that the question mark over testing was causing significant worry for health workers.

She said: “I have just had a cold, and it could be coronavirus. I feel worried about at-risk people in my family, I’ve had to keep kids off school, and it’s affecting my earnings. I said to my trust, ‘Can I come in to a mobile screening unit and be screened?’

“I was told no as it is not Public Health England guidance – they are not swabbing staff. But I have been in contact with patients who have tested positive for coronavirus.”

Is the government doing enough?

WHO officials have criticised authorities in countries worldwide for failing to conduct widespread testing.

“We have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the response. And to do that, you must test and isolate,,” said the UN agency’s Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“You cannot fight the fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic, if we don’t know who is infected.

“We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”

The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives was “breaking the chains of transmission”, he added.

Anthony Costello, a UK paediatrician and former WHO director, said he had personally written to Whitty to say that more coronavirus tests need to be done, reports The Guardian.

And more than 835,000 thousand people have signed a petition for doctors and nurses in the UK to be tested if they show symptoms.

“We’re never going to know how really widespread the infection is,” Neil Bhatia, a GP based in London, told Wired.

That view was echoed by Martin Hibberd from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said: “I think this is not sufficient. I would like to see more testing.”

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What have the UK authorities said?

Whitty has defended the government’s approach to testing, saying efforts are already “substantial” - but that the government intends to scale up testing.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, added that there were “significant moves afoot” to accelerate testing for the virus by the NHS.

But “for now”, he said, tests would continue to be reserved for identifying suspected cases that would “help us most”, such as patients in intensive care or with pneumonia.

Emergency powers being pushed through Parliament this week without a vote will allow police to detain people suspected to be infected and force them to be tested.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the powers would be used only “when it is absolutely necessary” to deal with the impact of the virus.

In guidance published on Gov.uk on Tuesday, the government said: “Public support and compliance is crucial and we are grateful for the flexibility people have shown, but we need to ensure police and immigration officers have the authority to enforce these measures where necessary.”

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