Mexico Low Coronavirus Count Spurs Doubts About Testing Rate

Andrea Navarro

(Bloomberg) --

Mexico’s low, barely budging count of confirmed coronavirus cases is raising concern about the adequacy of testing in the country and whether the government is doing enough to prepare for an epidemic.

As of Tuesday, only eight cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed since the first was reported Feb. 28 and Mexico was monitoring 37 possible cases. By comparison, Brazil, where the first case was confirmed two days before Mexico’s, confirmed 37 cases and suspected another 876.

On Wednesday evening, Mexico’s Health Ministry said the number of confirmed cases had reached 12.

Earlier in the day, the outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, as worldwide cases topped 120,000 and deaths exceeded 4,300. Countries still have a chance to alter the course of the pandemic, the WHO said, urging governments to step up containment efforts through testing, tracing and isolating.

As of Tuesday night, the Mexican Health Ministry said it had performed 278 tests.

“I’m worried about the lack of diagnostic testing,” said Francisco Moreno, infectious disease specialist and head of Internal Medicine at ABC Hospital in Mexico City. “If Mexico has undetected cases circulating, the spread of the disease is going to be brutal.”

Mexico has largely decided against implementing containment efforts. Airports aren’t widely screening travelers from countries with high numbers of cases and no big government events have been canceled. Those working from home are doing so mainly according to region-wide policies from their multinational corporate employers.

Mexico Is Prepared: AMLO

“We have the best experts on the matter,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday at his morning press conference. “We still have the same number of cases and luckily there’s been no loss of life. We’re not hiding information from the population.”

Jean-Marc Gabastou, adviser in emergency health for the Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization said at a Mexican Health Ministry press conference on Wednesday evening that the country was among the first to implement diagnostic capacity in each of its 32 states, with a total of 40 laboratories. “This country has always been one step ahead,” he said.

Cases in South Korea, where almost 200,000 tests have been performed, had shown signs of slowing before a new cluster of cases this week raised fears of another flare-up. The country has been testing people at the fastest pace in the world, which appears to have enabled early detection of cases and kept mortality rates lower than average. Moreno says Mexico should be following suit despite the intensive resources widespread testing will require.

“We need to copy what some other countries are doing in early detection of the disease,” Moreno said. Mexico “appears to be waiting for the problem to start before taking measures. And my fear is that when it grows, we’re going to be far from being able to contain it.”

As of now, Mexico is only testing people who have a direct connection to someone who’s traveled to a country deemed high-risk, or who’s been in contact with a confirmed case, said Alejandro Macias, the former national commissioner for influenza in Mexico during the H1N1 outbreak.

“It would be a good idea to lower the bar for testing,” he said in an interview. While Macias doubts there’s an undetected epidemic in the country because hospitals would be seeing the cases, “it’s likely that they’ve missed some cases and will continue to do so if they don’t increase testing.”

(Updates with new cases in third paragraph and comment from World Health Organization expert in ninth.)

--With assistance from Lorena Rios and Justin Villamil.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Navarro in Mexico City at anavarro30@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Case at bcase4@bloomberg.net, Susan Warren

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