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Vietnam Poised to Export COVID-19 Test Kits

People walk by a poster reading in Vietnamese "Fighting COVID-19" in Hanoi, Vietnam on Thursday, Apr. 23, 2020. Business activities resume in Vietnam as the country lifts the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)

Less than a month ago, Vietnam was importing COVID-19 test kits from South Korea and conducting test research with Japan. Today, Vietnam is exporting domestically made kits to richer nations, adding to a string of diplomatic gains for the Southeast Asian country that curbed the infection earlier than most.

Vietnam’s test kits attained a seal of approval from both the World Health Organization and Britain, the government in Hanoi said this week. Officials say Vietnam is one of five nations to have the kits ready for export and has received orders from 20 nations, as many governments struggle to secure enough tests.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc commended scientists and businesses Tuesday for developing the supplies, saying Vietnam has enough for domestic use, so there is no reason it cannot ship them abroad, as well.

“We must encourage businesses that export face masks, medicine and medical equipment by providing them with the best conditions,” the prime minister said during a regular COVID-19 briefing. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Last week, Vietnam became the first nation in Southeast Asia to reopen its economy, surprising observers with its rapid pandemic response. Vietnam said early testing, immediate quarantines of infected patients and their contacts, and restricted mobility helped to keep the number of cases at 270 with no deaths. The communist nation had tested 261,004 people as of Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health.

Keeping the viral spread limited has allowed Vietnam, with an economy worth more than $250 billion, to make diplomatic overtures such as with the export of the COVID-19 test kits. It has also donated or sold surgical masks and medical suits abroad at a time when many nations have issued export bans on medical gear. Vietnam is turning its attention to ventilators and vaccines, with Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam convening scientists for a meeting Wednesday to discuss treatment.

“The research and production of vaccines is the task that requires the coordination of scientific research units in different fields,” the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Among the first nations set to receive the COVID-19 test kits are Iran, Finland, Malaysia and Ukraine, according to the Ho Chi Minh City Customs Office. Vietnam has developed the two main types of COVID-19 tests used internationally, the Health Ministry said.

Antibody tests check whether a person has developed antibodies in response to the virus, while the other one, known as a PCR test, checks for the presence of the infection.

“False-negative results have damaging effects for the community,” Doan Huu Thien, one of the researchers working on tests, said. “Therefore, the aim of our research is to develop a biological kit which has high sensitivity.”

After China shipped kits overseas, for instance, nations from Spain to the Philippines disagreed on whether the Chinese kits were reliable.

Vietnam, despite its lower-middle-income status, has been able to develop the tests because of its broader experience with researching and treating tropical and infectious diseases. Vietnam has two offices of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its own version of the CDC, along with a branch of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, and multiple branches of the Pasteur Institute, a more than century-old vestige of the country’s French colonial days.

The nation has also been working closely with the WHO, which more than two months ago sent Vietnam lab supplies that have contributed to developing the virus tests.

“Through this investment, the country now has a strong laboratory system, including for advanced molecular testing, which is required for COVID-19 detection,” Kidong Park, the WHO representative in Vietnam, said.