Authorities refine virus strategy

Authorities refine virus strategy

Fresh cases pose new threats, but health chiefs say they're ready

Safety first: Pedestrians wearing face masks walk along a road near the Victory Monument in Phaya Thai district. Health officials stress that wearing face masks should be the norm for people going outdoors.
Safety first: Pedestrians wearing face masks walk along a road near the Victory Monument in Phaya Thai district. Health officials stress that wearing face masks should be the norm for people going outdoors.

The Department of Disease Control has insisted the country's health care system is well equipped to deal with a possible second wave of Covid-19 outbreak.

The assurance came along with a suggestion made by Thiravat Hemachudha, head of the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Disease Health Science Centre, that a cheaper Covid-19 finger-prick test should be adopted to expand screening for the virus, particularly in provinces sharing a border with neighbouring Myanmar which has been hit by a fresh outbreak.

Should Thailand encounter a second outbreak, medical workers are ready to deliver an effective response as testing equipment and test kits are currently in stock and ready to be used, said DDC deputy director-general Dr Tanarak Plipat.

These medical supplies could be produced locally to keep up with a surge in demand in the event of a significant number of new local transmissions, he said.

"We don't really know when the virus will strike again, so it is important to have protection," he said.

The doctor, however, said more Covid-19 tests than needed were being conducted of late, as opposed to testing that focused on specific groups of people in the earlier outbreak.

However, Dr Thiravat suggested that public health authorities scale-up tests on people, particularly in areas near the Thai-Myanmar border using the cheaper finger-prick test.

While a rapid finger-prick test for Covid-19 antibodies costs about 200 baht, a nasal swab for Covid-19 costs between 2,000 baht and 7,000 baht, he said, adding the swab test should instead be used to confirm positive results of the finger-prick tests, he said.

Since it is nearly impossible to prevent illegal migrants from sneaking into Thailand, testing people living near the border would be a more practical approach to ensuring early detection of new infections in the country, he said.

From observing second waves in other countries, Dr Tanarak said a resurgence of infections in Thailand may, in the beginning, cause a high number of infections among medical and health care workers.

He also noted that Covid-19 screening measures had become lax after a long period of no new local infections.

Hospitals have been asked to maintain a high level of Covid-19 vigilance as they did during the height of the outbreak, he said.

Schools are also being advised to take strict precautions, he said.

"Please bear in mind that we need to be well prepared to act fast to deal with [new infections] when an outbreak happens again," he said, adding the preparedness would help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the economy.

The chance of coronavirus mutation was low, Dr Tanarak said.

However, he said a mutation would, if it occurred, complicate treatments and undermine the efficiency of vaccines currently being developed.

Dr Thiravat said changes in the virus' genetic code showed the virus can now not only attack cells in the lungs but also infect the blood.

In the beginning, children appeared to be less affected, but the virus has also now been found to cause significant damage to the brain of an infant whose mother was infected with the virus.

This demonstrates the virus' ability to cause more serious symptoms, he said.

Meanwhile, Yong Poovorawan, head of the Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology at the Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, said global communities are now worried about the mutated G614 strain of the virus, which was found in a laboratory test, and is capable of spreading more widely than other strains.

However, there still is no valid evidence that the mutated G614 strain will cause more severe symptoms.

What warrants serious concern is the decline in compliance with the Public Health Ministry's Covid-19 prevention recommendations over the past three months while the country recorded no new cases of local transmission.

Both Dr Tanarak and Dr Thiravat agreed that many people have been too complacent about the Covid-19 situation and lowered their guard, thinking the danger had passed.

Dr Thiravat estimated that only about 60% of people still are aware of the remaining risk.

Dr Tanarak noted people in the provinces were less aware of the need to practice health safety measures than those in Bangkok.

"The latest discovery of a Covid-19 infection in an inmate should be a wake-up call to the reality that the virus may well still be out there, especially in crowded areas," Dr Tanarak said.

Dr Yong, of Chulalongkorn University, said it usually takes at least two years to test a new vaccine and it needs to be done on more than 10,000 volunteers before its efficacy is assured.

This will make it difficult for Thailand to develop and produce its own vaccine given the low number of cases in the country.

And even if there were sufficient cases in the country for a new vaccine trial, the country still lacks the necessary standard of facilities for vaccine production, he said.

That explains why a Covid-19 vaccine development project in Thailand requires higher investment to cover the costs of hiring a foreign company to produce shots of the developed vaccine for testing abroad, he said.

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