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Data Analysis: Less Testing Could Account for Poorer Nations’ Lower Virus Cases


A boat rides past a temple in Bangkok. Thailand is one of the nations with low COVID-19 cases, likely due to low testing. (VOA News)

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) conducted a data analysis suggesting the low figures are due to less testing—meaning there’s a danger the contagion could explode as cases go undetected.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in developing nations in Asia is relatively low when compared to those in other regions, but that is unlikely to be the good news optimists hope it is. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) conducted a data analysis suggesting the low figures are due to less testing—meaning there’s a danger the contagion could explode as cases go undetected.

ADB consultants Trinh Long and Peter Morgan looked at the number of tests and infections in Asian nations, and then compared them to the income per capita in those nations. Their study showed a “strongly positive relationship” in which wealthier nations had more “aggressive testing programs,” while poorer nations did far less testing per capita, they said.

“The prevalence of the virus in Asian emerging economies has been surprisingly subdued on the whole, so far,” Long and Morgan said in an analysis for the ADB Institute shared by email Friday. They added, “There are two possible interpretations—either people in lower-income economies have higher immunity, or those economies have less testing.”

There is no evidence to suggest people’s income has something to do with their immunity to a virus. Many of the developing nations in the analysis also are in hot climates, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. People have said COVID-19 could go away in hotter weather. The World Health Organization, however, says on its “myth busters” page this is not true.

“COVID-19 virus can be transmitted in areas with hot and humid climates,” the WHO said. “You can catch COVID-19, no matter how sunny or hot the weather is.”

In the absence of testing, people have used other proxies to deduce if rates of infection or death linked to the virus may be higher than are reported.

In the Indonesia capital of Jakarta, the number of funerals rose 40% in March, which the governor attributes to the virus, according to Reuters. The Economist magazine is compiling data that shows how many deaths various governments are reporting, compared with the number of deaths usually expected this time of year.

There is more than one factor that might explain why test rates are so low in developing nations in Asia, according to the ADB Institute’s Long, a project consultant, and Morgan, a senior consulting economist. These include cost, expertise and facilities.

“First, simply obtaining testing kits may be difficult due to their cost and competition with advanced countries for limited supplies,” they said. “Even if testing kits reach a country, the capacity to use them may be limited due to inadequacies in the health care system, a lack of laboratory facilities, or a relatively high share of the rural population, which is more difficult to reach. Country-level strategies may focus on testing only those with symptoms, rather than trying to sample the whole population.”

Not testing those without symptoms, however, could affect a nation’s ability to control the pandemic, they say.

Long and Morgan are calling on development agencies like theirs to aid nations to get test kits, provide medical care and buttress the economy from coronavirus impact. Without aid, they said, there is a “risk of rapid increases in infection rates in the future.”

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