‘Pandemic curve may have been flattened’

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 15, 2020.
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KUALA LUMPUR: While Malaysia enters the third phase of the nationwide movement control order (MCO) today, ministry of health (MoH) director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah says the first two phases of the MCO may have achieved their objective of “flattening the curve” of Covid-19 infections.

Drawing a comparison with the projection made by JPMorgan Chase & Co last month, Noor Hisham said Malaysia had definitely managed to record fewer Covid-19 cases compared to the initial forecast of the international investment bank.

“Today (yesterday) was supposed to be the peak [according to the prediction] but we have not seen a peak in terms of the graph, so perhaps we have managed to flatten the curve. Obviously, we have seen a lower number of cases compared to what was predicted,” he told reporters yesterday during his daily briefing of the Covid-19 situation in the country.

“But more importantly, more needs to be done. This is why we are monitoring it closely and hopefully the third phase of the MCO will help us further,” Noor Hisham added.

A report released by JPMorgan’s Asia-Pacific Equity Research group on March 23 projected that Malaysia would see a peak in Covid-19 cases at around mid-April, with 6,300 cases.

It also projected that the peak period would last for approximately one and a half to two weeks, before moving into the accumulation stage, when the overall infection growth rate would slow to 100 to 250 cases per day.

However, the MoH reported the tally of Covid-19 cases in the country at 4,987 — much lower than JPMorgan’s forecast — following the addition of 170 new infections as of yesterday noon.

Noor Hisham previously said the purpose of the MCO was to flatten the infection curve and contain the number of infections, so that hospitals across the country would be able cope with the inflow of patients. Flattening the curve does not, however, mean that the number of infections would be brought down to zero.

 

Targeted 16,500 tests daily yet to be achieved

Meanwhile, Noor Hisham updated that the MoH had not managed to bring up its daily testing capacity for Covid-19 to 16,500 tests per day, a target it previously said would be achieved by mid-April.

The capacity remains at 11,500 tests — same as a week ago — across 43 laboratories in the country. When the pandemic first started, the daily testing capacity was at 3,500. Five more laboratories are now being built in Tawau, Sandakan, Miri, Bintulu and Kluang to further boost the nation’s Covid-19 testing capacity.

In the meantime, the MoH is working to optimise the use of existing laboratories by shifting its strategy to conduct antibody tests (serology) instead of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on those who had been in close contact with Covid-19 patients. This is because PCR tests take a longer time as their samples need to be sent to the laboratories, compared to antibody tests that can be done on-site.

A PCR test typically takes six hours but because of the large volume of samples to be brought to and tested in the laboratories, such a test can take up to 48 hours before the result can be obtained. Hence, antibody tests will be done on close contacts who are about to end their 14-day quarantine period to determine if they are cleared for release, said Noor Hisham .

“On the first day, we will still take a PCR swab. On the 13th day, we used to take another PCR test. Now, we are using a serology or antibody test because it is faster, easier and can be done at the bedside. If it turns out positive, then we will reconfirm [the result] with a PCR test.