The government has decided to approve antigen tests on a limited scale at government healthcare facilities to diagnose the novel coronavirus. Public health experts appreciated the move, saying antigen tests will make Covid-19 diagnosis faster and less expensive than the RT-PCR tests and ramp up testing capacity.
However, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said the government is yet to approve antibody tests.
"We decided not to approve rapid antibody tests while the prime minister gave her consent to introducing antigen tests on a limited scale. The tests will be conducted only at state-run healthcare facilities,"Zahid Maleque told journalists at the ministry Monday after receiving protective equipment from Taiwan External Trade Development Centre.
Bangladesh from the beginning has been conducting RT-PCR tests for coronavirus detection. Though RT-PCR tests of nasal swabs are globally recognized as standard diagnosis for the novel coronavirus, the method is comparatively expensive and people have to wait for days to get their reports.
On the other hand, antigen tests are cheaper and can deliver reports in a few minutes.
"The number of daily tests is not picking up as people are reluctant to have the virus diagnosed," said the minister.
He said the government has slashed coronavirus test fees to encourage people to have tests. Meanwhile, test fees for expatriates have also been halved.
Even after the measures taken by the government, the 88 PCR machines across the country are not getting enough samples for testing, added the health minister.
Late, but still positive: Experts
Prof Nazrul Islam, noted virologist and former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said the approval is positive though it came late.
"This will lessen the sufferings of people and the hospitals will also be able to resume treatment of non-Covid patients easily," said Prof Nazrul.
The virologist also supported the government decision to limit antigen tests at only government facilities as he feared private-level testing might abuse it.
"Already there have been several scams over Covid-19 testing in this pandemic," he said.
On antibody tests, Prof Nazrul Islam said the government might have discarded antibody tests for the time being since it could be abused too.However, he advocated for approving antibody tests in future for serosurveillance–the gold standard for measuring population immunity due to past infection or vaccination.
Dr M Mushtuq Husain, advisor at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), agreed with Prof Nazrul on antibody test approval.
He said, "Antibody tests are mostly for research or for purposes of surveys. Illicit clinic owners may exploit the approval if it is given for other purposes. Antibody tests should not get approval unless a large population requires testing at a time."
Vaccine purchase from low price offering source
Zahid Maleque said communications with the UK's Oxford University, China's Sinovac, USA's Moderna and Pfizer, and Russia's Sputnik is currently going on regarding the availability of a vaccine. Bangladesh will purchase a vaccine from the source which will bring it first and offer a reasonable price.
"The prime minister is being updated on vaccines regularly. Upon her decision, we will sign a deal or pay in advance," said the minister.
Claiming that there is no regional politics over vaccine purchase or trials, the minister said the vaccine issue across the globe is actually linked to healthcare.
He said the World Health Organization(WHO) promised to provide 20 percent of people in lower- and middle-income countries with vaccines. Bangladesh contacted WHO in July.
Dedicated hospitals decreasing
The health minister said both the infection rate and deaths in Bangladesh declined while the recovery rate has gone up.
"The situation in Bangladesh is better compared to India, USA and European countries. It was possible due to early preparedness. Now 70 percent of beds in the hospitals are empty," he said.
Zahid Maleque said,"80-90 percent of patients are now availing telemedicine services. Therefore, we will declare some Covid-19 dedicated health facilities as non-Covid hospitals, paving the way for regular patients to utilize the facilities."
Asked about a media report on life-saving medical equipment, including ICU beds and ventilators worth around Tk135 crore, lying unused in the warehouse of the health directorate amid the pandemic, the minister said, "We will not allow the equipment to go out of order. We will send it to government healthcare facilities which are in need across the country and to the newly built hospitals." ***