Strained Thai hospitals suspend testing amid new COVID-19 outbreak

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - At least a dozen Bangkok hospitals reported they had stopped testing for coronavirus as of Friday over a lack of kits or capacity amid a new outbreak, as Thailand said it was working to increase its vaccine supply with private imports.

The suspension will likely raise concern of missing infections in the new outbreak, which includes the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain, since hospitals and clinics have been reporting the majority of cases.

Thailand's third wave also comes as people prepare for next week's annual Songkran festival, known for big gatherings and street water fights that authorities have now banned for a second year.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he had met with representatives from private hospitals to discuss procurement of "alternative vaccine" for people but gave little detail.

Nationwide vaccinations won't start until locally made AstraZeneca shots are ready in June, although authorities have started inoculating frontline health workers and people on the tourist island of Phuket with about 2 million imported doses.

Private hospitals could import an additional 10 million doses, on top of about 70 million that the government said it had already secured, said Taweesin Wisanuyothin, a spokesman for the government's Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration.

The vaccine strategy came under renewed spotlight as Bangkok became the epicentre of an outbreak that has seen new cases go from only a few dozen to several hundred per day.

Thailand has done better than many countries in controlling the virus, but the new outbreak raises worries that the health system could face a much bigger test.

Thailand reported 559 new COVID-19 infections and one new death on Friday, and nearly a third of cabinet ministers are self-isolating due to potential exposure to cases.

The new cases took the total number of infections to 30,869, with 96 deaths.

Some of the 12 hospitals in Bangkok suspending COVID-19 testing cited a shortage of supplies while others did not specify a reason. Some also said the suspension would last only a few days while others gave no date for resumption.

Government COVID-19 spokesman Taweesin argued that the suspension of testing was more due to a shortage of available beds since hospitals have to admit people if they test positive.

With a prospect of more business, hospital shares rose with Vibhavadi Medical Center up nearly 17% and Bumrungrad Hospital rising 5.2%, outperforming the main stock index on Friday.

In a bid to curb the spread, Thailand will close nightspots in Bangkok and 40 provinces, including pubs and karaoke bars, for two weeks starting Saturday at midnight.

The prime minister on Friday said people should be responsible for their own actions, but authorities were closing venues to stamp out temptation.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Ed Davies, Martin Petty)