TAIPEI: Facing Taiwan’s largest outbreak of the pandemic and in search of speedy virus check kits, the mayor of the island’s capital did what anybody would possibly do: He Googled it.
“If you don’t know, and you try to know something, please check Google,” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je quipped.
Praised for its success at holding the virus away for greater than a 12 months, Taiwan had till May recorded simply 1,128 circumstances and 12 deaths. But the variety of regionally transmitted circumstances began rising this month and it quickly turned clear that the central authorities was ill-prepared not solely to comprise the virus, however to even detect it on a big scale as a consequence of an absence of funding in speedy testing.
That left officers like Ko scrambling to catch up because the variety of new infections climbed to about 300 a day. Ko’s search put him in touch with six native firms who make speedy checks and his authorities was quickly in a position to arrange 4 speedy testing websites in a district that had emerged as a virus hotspot.
Rapid checks, consultants say, are a crucial device in catching the virus in its early days. The various that Taiwan has been counting on — checks that must be despatched out to a lab for processing — has led to backlogs that could be obscuring the true extent of the outbreak.
“You want to identify those infected cases as soon as possible” to comprise the unfold, mentioned Ruby Huang, a professor within the medical faculty at National Taiwan University. “And then you’re basically running against time.”
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With so few circumstances, Taiwan had been a bubble of normalcy for many of the pandemic. Schools stayed open, folks went to bars and eating places, and the island’s financial system was among the many few globally that noticed optimistic development.
Its success was constructed largely on strict border controls that primarily allowed in solely residents and long-term residents, who then confronted necessary two-week quarantines.
From time to time it discovered small clusters of infections and stamped them out by contact tracing and quarantines. Last month authorities discovered a cluster involving pilots from state-owned China Airlines.
Stopping the virus this time would show tough, partly as a result of beneath authorities coverage pilots had been solely required to quarantine for three-days and didn’t want a damaging check to get out of quarantine. Soon staff at a quarantine resort the place China Airlines flight crew stayed began getting sick — and so did their relations.
The virus had escaped quarantine and was spreading regionally, principally in Taipei and surrounding areas.
The authorities in Taiwan — the place solely about 1 per cent of the inhabitants have been vaccinated — responded by ordering a lockdown, closing faculties and switching workplaces to distant work or rotating shifts. Contact tracers recognized 600,000 those that wanted to quarantine themselves.
The greatest roadblock has been testing.
Government coverage all through the pandemic has been to depend on polymerase chain response, or PCR, checks, that are seen because the gold commonplace for analysis however should be processed utilizing particular machines in a lab. The authorities has not inspired speedy checks, that are faster and cheaper however doubtlessly much less correct.
In and round Taipei, labs have been working extra time in latest weeks however are nonetheless struggling to course of all of the samples.
Tim Tsai mentioned on only a single day final week his lab in New Taipei metropolis obtained 400 samples from hospitals to check. He mentioned his lab was solely in a position to course of about 120 samples a day.
“Our medical technicians, they were leaving work at midnight,” he mentioned.
The authorities’s Central Epidemic Command Center mentioned in a press release that every one 141 authorities designated labs have the capability to course of 30,000 PCR checks a day. However, it declined to supply the precise variety of checks being processed.
It mentioned it was “persevering with to work with related labs to analysis methods to speed up and broaden our capability, with out impacting accuracy”.
Throughout the pandemic the government has maintained there are few benefits to mass testing, with the health minister saying last year that public funds and medical resources could better be used elsewhere.
The government instead has emphasised a strategy of contact tracing and isolation and only testing those with symptoms and direct contact with someone infected.
“This is more efficient, effective and accurate,” said Chen Chien-jen, the island’s former vice president, who led the pandemic response last year before retiring.
Experts say such a strategy may have been appropriate when case numbers were low, but needed to change as infections spread.
“You should have a two-pronged approach. You do the quarantine, but you should do massive widespread testing,” mentioned Ok Arnold Chan, an knowledgeable on drug and medical merchandise regulation at National Taiwan University. “For whatever reason the government is completely unprepared.”
Taiwanese companies developed rapid tests for COVID-19 early last year, but the majority of their sales have been overseas.
“Back then the CDC didn’t support rapid tests, and there was no epidemic,” said Edward Ting, a spokesperson for Panion and BF Biotech, which has had its own test since March 2020. “We tried to sell, but it wasn’t possible.”
The central government finally appears to be coming around, with the health minister last week asking local governments to set up rapid testing sites. Ting said his company has since had calls from governments across the island asking about its tests.
The central government also is now offering subsidies for labs to buy new machines to process PCR tests.
Aaron Chen, whose company developed a machine that can process up to 2,000 PCR test samples every four hours, said he has diverted two machines bound for export to be used locally instead.
Ko, the mayor of Taipei, said his city has purchased 250,000 rapid test kits. Though the city is still relying on PCR tests to confirm actual cases, Ko said the rapid tests better allow him to monitor the situation on the ground.
Ko, a former surgeon, said it was important to be open to change.
“There’s a phrase in Chinese: One thrives in times of calamity and perishes in soft times. Because when you’re very successful you are not forced to improve. Only when you fail, then are you forced to improve,” said Ko. “We were too successful in the past year.”