Mass COVID-19 testing in Singapore will depend on how circuit breaker is lifted: Gan Kim Yong

·Senior Editor
·4-min read

SINGAPORE — While Singapore wants to test as many as possible for the coronavirus, there is a “natural limit” and a “strategic logic” to who is tested and how it is done, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (28 April), adding that it will also depend on how the ongoing partial lockdown of the country is lifted.

“We may decide to test selective groups of workers, and do we test them every day? Which I think may not be possible. Do we test them regularly and how frequent we need to test them, will all be part and parcel of this plan, for us to be able to roll back some of the circuit breaker measures."

He added, “If some of the measures that we roll back do not involve high risk areas, we may not need to employ testing. We may just need to step up some of the safe distancing measures as we do so.”

Gan was addressing a virtual multi-ministry taskforce press conference, on the same day that the Ministry of Health (MOH) reported a preliminary 528 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore as of noon, bringing the total to 14,951 – the highest recorded in Southeast Asia.

He responded to a question from Yahoo News Singapore on how Singapore intends to carry out mass COVID-19 testing, and whether it might involve drive-through testing, as has been done in South Korea and New York. The taskforce co-chair was also asked if there is a target figure for the number of people to be tested.

On 21 April, Gan told reporters that before the partial lockdown of the country can be lifted, Singapore will need to greatly increase its capacity to test for COVID-19, in order to ensure that there is no more community transmission. Addressing the nation on the same day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said that Singapore is procuring test kits and equipment from other countries, as well as developing and manufacturing its own test kits.

Different testing technologies

On Tuesday, Gan’s fellow taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong also chimed in, saying that the Republic is currently trying out different testing technologies. He noted that the main method of testing at the moment is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is “complex” and needs to be run through a lab.

Authorities are now exploring options such as point of care tests and pool testing, said the National Development Minister. “Even with an existing PCR test, there are innovative things you can do. You can do what they call pool testing - not one test for one individual but batch, so that even if you have a limited number of tests that you can administer a day, you can multiply the number of tests that you can do by pool testing.”

But Wong stressed that testing is just one part of the overall strategy to allow Singapore to safely resume normal activities. “It will have to be complemented with many other measures, whether it's quarantine, safe distancing, as well as one thing I mentioned yesterday during the press conference, which is the use of technology for more, faster contact tracing.”

On Monday, the MOH noted that testing is a “critical enabler” of the country’s fight against COVID-19. In this regard, Singapore’s national capacity to conduct coronavirus tests has been steadily built up - from an average of 2,900 tests per day in early April, it is now able to conduct more than 8,000 tests per day.

Singapore’s testing rate at 2,100 per 100,000 persons is higher than in the US at 1,600 per 100,000, South Korea at 1,100 per 100,000 and the UK at 1,000 per 100,000. “The higher intensity of testing allows us to pick up far more cases than many other countries,” added the MOH.

The government has come under fire in recent weeks for failing to take stricter measures earlier to curb the spread of the virus in foreign worker dormitories, which house some 300,000 men, often in cramped and unhygienic conditions. More than 12,500 migrant workers have so far tested positive for COVID-19 to date.

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