COVID-19 SPECIAL

Taiwan doing more screening, to avoid new coronavirus outbreak

Pupils eating lunch at their desks with plastic partitions put up as a preventive measure against the coronavirus at an elementary school in Taipei yesterday.
Pupils eating lunch at their desks with plastic partitions put up as a preventive measure against the coronavirus at an elementary school in Taipei yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With just over 420 confirmed cases and six deaths as of Tuesday, the load has not been significant on the more than 480 hospitals in Taiwan.

This has meant fewer patients for each medical worker, resulting in better treatment and controls to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Unlike South Korea and Italy, where cases spiked quickly, the island has not needed lockdown measures. Mass testing has been ruled out for the time being, a decision Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) head Chen Shih-chung on Tuesday said is backed by the low rate of infection.

The infection rate is 0.7 per cent for all those who were tested. It is even lower at 0.009 per cent for those who reported coronavirus-like symptoms, with results showing many actually had the regular flu.

To reduce the risk of community spread in hospitals, medical staff work in small teams and hospitals control who gets to go in and out.

In the past three months, around 4.8 million people reported having Covid-19 symptoms to Taiwan's health authorities, but only 1.3 per cent of them - those with a travel history or who may have come into contact with confirmed cases - were tested.

But Taiwan is preparing for a potential community outbreak, with the government lowering the bar for testing last month.

Tests are now not only for those with respiratory symptoms and fever who had recently travelled to countries with coronavirus outbreaks, or who had contact with coronavirus patients, but all pneumonia patients and those who have lost their sense of smell and taste.

The number of hospitals that provide screening has also increased, from 20 in February to 167 in March.

Taiwan is also producing its own masks, protective suits and testing kits at home, having learnt the hard way from the 2003 Sars outbreak when it was left out of World Health Organisation meetings and had to scramble to cope with the outbreak that left 73 dead on the island.

The Genomics Research Centre under Taiwan's Academia Sinica is working to develop a 15-minute rapid screening test for the virus, but it is still using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

 
 
 

The CECC said the PCR test is more accurate than rapid screening but takes up to four hours to produce results.

Local researchers have developed a key reagent for the rapid screening test, and have transferred the technology to seven domestic manufacturers. One or two will later be selected to mass produce the kits.

According to Academia Sinica president James Liao, researchers took only one month to create a rapid-testing prototype instead of the three months minimum usually required.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline 'Doing more screening, to avoid new outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe