Intense PCR testing vital for containing COVID-19, Sri Lankan researchers find in global study
ECONOMYNEXT – Intensifying PCR testing was the most crucial intervention towards controlling COVID-19 during the pandemic’s first wave, a global study conducted by Sri Lanka’s Institute for Health Policy (IHP) has found. The study also provides “strong scientific evidence”, the IHP said today (03), that Sri Lanka’s rate of PCR testing was never enough to prevent a second wave.
Published in the US-based peer-reviewed Health Affairs journal, the study found that a ten-fold increase in the ratio of PCR tests to new cases reduced average COVID-19 transmission by 9 percent.
An IHP press release said the study, the first to address a critical gap in the international research on testing, used data from 173 countries between March and June 2020 to examine the impact of PCR testing on the spread of COVID-19.
“Increasing PCR testing reduced COVID-19 cases and deaths, and it was the most important predictor of how well countries contained the pandemic. The study also found that lockdowns did not slow the virus in most countries and that masks and school closures had less impact than high levels of testing and isolation,” the IHP, an independent, non-profit research institute based in Colombo, said in a statement.
The institute noted that despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) urging governments in March to “test, test, and test,” policy-makers and medical experts in Sri Lanka could not agree on what amounted to adequate testing. The Ministry of Health did not significantly increase testing or testing capacity after the first lockdown ended in May, it said.
Lead investigator and IHP Executive Director Dr Ravi Rannan-Eliya said countries that were doing better than others were testing more.
“We knew that several countries in our region, such as China, Vietnam and Australia were doing well, but the experts never agreed on why — whether it was to do with masks, lockdowns or something else. Our research clearly shows that their better performance was driven by higher levels of PCR testing,” the statement quoted him as saying.
The research has important implications for Sri Lanka, the IHP statement said.
“It provides strong scientific evidence that the country’s rate of PCR testing was never enough to effectively control COVID-19 and prevent a second wave. Findings also imply that WHO and US government guidelines on testing are not sufficient — most countries need much more testing to control COVID-19,” it said.
To keep Sri Lanka safe in the next two years, said Dr Rannan-Eliya, authorities must learn from the countries that successfully controlled the pandemic without a vaccine.
“We need to seriously invest in expanding national capacity to do PCR tests and make routine testing the new normal. The global data are clear — this is the best way to avoid lockdowns and school closures, and to protect our economy,” he said.
According to the IHP statement, the research was carried out drawing entirely on the institute’s own resources without any external funding.
“When we started this research during the first lockdown, we wanted to help the country, and we never imagined it would be published internationally. Finding funding for doing international research in Sri Lanka is never easy. Our small team took pay-cuts and worked long hours under difficult conditions to do this work. We are really proud of what we did without outside help. I hope it will inspire other Sri Lankan researchers — we don’t always have to depend on outside research, we too can contribute substantially to international policy debates,” said Dr Rannan-Eliya. (Colombo/Dec03/2020)