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LATIN AMERICA | 01-02-2022 14:25

Latin America slowly turns to self Covid tests as cases jump

Latin American countries that have been slow or hesitant to approve at-home Covid-19 tests widely used in developed nations are now turning to them to cope with a resurgence of the virus.

Latin American countries that have been slow or hesitant to approve at-home Covid-19 tests widely used in developed nations are now turning to them to cope with the resurgence of the virus in one of the globe’s hardest-hit regions.

Brazil okayed self-tests last Friday to fight the exponential increase in cases caused by the Omicron variant. Argentina gave the green light in early January, following Peru and Chile, which were the first to approve them last year. Most are still in the process of importing and striking agreements with companies for distributing them in pharmacies and retail stores amid soaring global demand.

Health officials say that along with vaccination and masking, self-tests made by companies such as Abbott Laboratories and Roche Holding AG are a crucial tool for citizens and governments trying to stem a two-year pandemic that has claimed more than 5.6 million lives around the globe. The tests take only about 15 minutes versus days for a laboratory PCR test, though they produce more false negatives. 

Some Latin American authorities worry self-tests will lead to a “false sense of security” and could skew official data. 

In Honduras, authorities are reluctant to approve self-testing because it would be difficult for people to take a “good sample,” according to Mitzi Castro, director of Honduras’s National Virology Laboratory. 

“Home tests would give a lot of false negatives, and people will think they’re healthy,” she said. 

The Ecuadorean government banned them for “epidemiological reasons.” Indeed, the country has never allowed self-testing for diseases in the past. Currently, laboratory tests are available only for people who need them for medical reasons or to travel. Prescriptions are required. 

Around the world, the introduction of self-testing has varied by country. Spain, France, Britain, the United States and Germany have given the go-ahead, although supply hasn’t kept up with demand. US President Joe Biden is sending 500 million free Covid-19 tests to US households as self-tests are sold at triple the retail price. Abbott said it is currently manufacturing more than 100 million tests to meet soaring demand.

 

Only the ill

With limited laboratory tests, some Latin American countries are prioritising patients with symptoms, while others have asked the population to quarantine instead of getting tested due to the high demand. Mexican Undersecretary of Health Hugo López Gatell said the country was experiencing a shortage of laboratory tests and asked the population not to saturate public and private laboratories.

“Instead of running to the health center to get tested, what you have to do is stay home to avoid infecting other people,” López Gatell said in a news conference last month. “The testing shortage is global.”

Bertha Hidalgo, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said home tests should be introduced alongside a strong educational programme. 

“People need to know that the time during which they take the test is the only time during which they can be certain that they are not infectious,” she said. “If they have a positive result, they should take action accordingly.” 

by Angelica Serrano-Roman, Bloomberg

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