The Jakarta Post
Calls are mounting for the government to form a national outbreak committee that involves experts to help the Health Ministry in the battle against the COVID-19 coronavirus as questions abound about the country having zero confirmed cases.
The committee is expected to have a similar role as the now-defunct National Committee for Avian Influenza Control and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (Komnas FPBI) that was set up to contain the bird flu between 2006 and 2010, which also involved experts.
A biochemistry researcher at Airlangga University, Chairul Anwar Nidom, who was a member of Komnas FPBI's expert panel, said giving the Health Ministry alone the role of dealing with the coronavirus was one of the government's "weaknesses".
"We need to revive such a committee, which would be tasked with building communication bridges between departments [of different ministries and agencies] and be filled with people competent in their respective fields," he told The Jakarta Post recently.
"The committee can provide answers to international doubts because if it [COVID-19 control] is under the Health Ministry alone, people will continue casting doubt about whether [the measures taken] have been subjective."
He also proposed that such a committee could function as a centralized platform for the government to report on measures taken -- including on laboratory test results.
Other than a panel of experts, the Komnas FPBI also consisted of cross-sectoral ministers. In late 2010, Komnas FPBI was turned into the National Committee for Zoonosis Control, focusing on any diseases passed from animals to humans, before it was permanently dissolved in 2016 by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo because it had overlapping tasks with several ministries and agencies.
Second opinions from independent experts are essential to help solve a problem, said Amin Soebandrio, the director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology who led the Komnas FPBI's expert panel.
The government has set procedures for coronavirus testing, but he said experts had yet to know whether they were implemented without errors as there was no information available to them, Amin said.
Indonesia had tested 143 specimens as of Saturday, apart from the 188 World Dream cruise ship crew members who had started a two-week observation period on Sebaru Kecil Island off the coast of Jakarta on Friday. The ministry is also planning to test the 69 Diamond Princess cruise ship crew members previously quarantined in Japan, bringing the total number of tests close to 400.
The number, however, pales in comparison with that of neighboring Malaysia, which had tested 1,092 cases as of Feb. 24, although the Health Ministry’s disease control and prevention directorate general secretary, Achmad Yurianto, claimed that its laboratory, the only one in the country authorized to conduct the tests, could do up to 1,700 per day.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has said budget efficiency was a concern and that lab tests would only be done on those with symptoms who also had travel records and contacts with infected countries or people, in line with World Health Organization guidelines.
Indonesia's testing capability appeared to be an issue also raised by the international community, with a document circulating among foreign diplomats obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald showing that inadequate transportation of specimens was among the concerns.
Saudi Arabia also listed Indonesia as one of the countries where "the spread of the [COVID-19] coronavirus is a danger" according to its health authorities, making it subject to the kingdom's suspension of tourism visas.
Malaysian and New Zealand authorities said on Friday that two recently confirmed cases had been to Indonesia before testing positive for the coronavirus in the respective countries, in addition to a Chinese man and a Japanese tourist who tested positive days after they went out of Indonesia.
Amin of the Eijkman Institute said that, although the government had followed WHO procedures in conducting tests on those with symptoms only, budget efficiency should not be a top priority this time.
Eijkman and several other laboratories were ready to partner with the ministry to run lab tests, but they were waiting for the government's invitation.
The effectiveness of the ministry's laboratory came into question recently after a hospital in Semarang, Central Java, and another in Batam, Riau Islands, each reported the death of a patient who had symptoms similar to those of COVID-19.
Both patients’ tests came back negative, officials said, with the Semarang patient succumbing to bronchopneumonia, whom Minister Terawan later confirmed had the H1N1 virus, which is a known cause of swine flu. The Batam patient, meanwhile, was said to have died from "another illness".
In early February, Health Ministry disease control and prevention director general Anung Sugihantono claimed the ministry was also actively looking into deaths from pneumonia, claiming there had been no significant increase in such deaths. He did not immediately provide the relevant data.
The Post, however, obtained a ministry letter showing that it requested for hospitals' data on their pneumonia patients and deaths recorded between Dec. 1 and Feb. 25 only on Feb. 26, despite its previous claim.
Yet, Yurianto said that letter was merely issued to create better data management.
"All this time hospitals send the reports to the health service directorate general. We want them to also send us the same reports so we can manage the data," he said. "The one in the health service directorate general is mixed up with other illnesses, so it takes a long time to map them."