The Jakarta Post
The Health Ministry has said it will now assign its regional labs to test people suspected of carrying the novel coronavirus amid concerns that it has not been proactive enough in detecting infected people to prevent its spread.
The ministry, which is spearheading the battle against the lethal virus, previously insisted that only its Jakarta-based Health Research and Development Agency (Balitbangkes) be authorized to conduct throat swab tests and announce the result.
The patients, a mother and her daughter, are believed to have contracted the virus after the latter interacted with a Japanese COVID-19 patient who visited Jakarta last month.
“With the first confirmed cases, we need to be able to respond faster. The tests will no longer be done in Balitbangkes only,” said the Health Ministry’s disease control and prevention directorate general secretary, Achmad Yurianto, who has been appointed as the spokesman for the handling of the virus outbreak.
Environmental, health and technology centers (BTKL) in 10 cities — Batam, Medan, Palembang, Makassar, Manado, Ambon, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Banjarmasin — have been chosen to conduct the tests.
The labs will only conduct a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is used to determine whether someone has contracted Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, Achmad said. Only Balitbangkes, he added, had the capability to conduct a gene sequencing analysys to identify the virus infecting a suspected patient if they were declared negative for coronavirus.
“We will send supervisors to these centers. Now a specimen from Ambon no longer needs to be sent to Jakarta,” Achmad said.
Officials will now test not only those showing COVID-19 symptoms and having recently traveled to countries affected by the virus outbreak such as China, South Korea and Iran but also those having had contact with coronavirus-positive people even though they show no symptoms.
Many parties, including scientists and foreign governments, have cited the lack of tests as the primary reason Indonesia, one of the top tourist destinations for people in Wuhan, the Chinese city from which the animal virus first infected humans, could have been underreporting cases.
The government has only tested samples of 155 suspected patients across the country, two of which have come back positive. For comparison, as of March 2, South Korea, which has the most COVID-19 patients outside China, has performed 109,591 tests.
While it has decided to change its testing policy, the government has refused to establish a special independent committee to handle the health crisis, as demanded by a number of health experts.
“There is no need for a new organization. Too much structure is confusing,” Achmad said.
Doubts linger over whether the Health Ministry alone is capable of handling the crisis, or is proactive enough to detect patients, which is crucial to prevent the virus from spreading.
Critics have questioned whether the ministry had been proactive in tracing people who have had contact with foreign nationals who tested positive for coronavirus and are known to have traveled to Indonesia.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto initially claimed that the government had proactively traced Case 1, a 31-year-old woman, after being notified by Malaysia that a Japanese COVID-19 patient had visited Indonesia. He then clarified that it was the woman herself who came to the hospital to have herself checked after being informed by her friend about the Japanese woman.
Achmad has dismissed such concerns, saying the government was now tracing 50 people of different nationalities who went to a restaurant where Case 1 met with the Japanese patient. “We’ve got three names. It’s not easy because the patient did not have a close relation to these people."
On Tuesday, President Jokowi called on the Indonesian people to remain calm and respect the COVID-19 patients’ privacy following his announcement of the first two confirmed cases of the disease.
“The fact is that most of the patients — including those in China, Japan, Italy and Iran — have been able to recover from the disease. So we don’t have to fret but we should remain vigilant,” he said, adding that hospitals treating the patients should avoid disclosing their private information.
Bayu Krisnamurthi, who headed the National Committee for Avian Flu Control and Pandemic Preparedness (Komnas Flu Burung), said the country must work together to contain the virus.
“We are no longer preventing the novel coronavirus from entering the country. We should now focus on containing its spread. There must be a special authority to handle this,” Bayu told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
The special committee will have the authority to coordinate between related institutions. “The core issue is national health, but that’s not the only one. It involves many things: transportation, industries, scientific institutions, regional administrations and more. We need to have an authority that is specifically assigned to this, working full time to handle this because coronavirus is not a usual thing,” he said. (aly)
The article has been updated to clarify Achmad Yurianto's statement on the authority of Balitbangkes.