Beijing has 67 labs capable of processing 48,000 tests a day, but other less well–off provinces, including Yunnan and Guangxi, are playing catch–up, opening new labs in recent weeks.

Workers in protective suits collect swabs from senior high school students for nucleic acid tests at Hubei Wuchang Experimental High School before the students are set to return to campus in Wuhan, China, April 30, 2020.
Workers in protective suits collect swabs from senior high school students for nucleic acid tests at Hubei Wuchang Experimental High School before the students are set to return to campus in Wuhan, China, April 30, 2020. (Reuters)

Beijing resident Wang Yukun was happy to comply in April when the construction firm he works for told him he'd need to take a test for the novel coronavirus before he could come back to work, even though he was at low risk of having the disease.

"My company arranged it and covered the test fee. The process was less time-consuming than I imagined," he said, recalling how he got his negative result the next day. "I think everyone should be tested as a matter of personal health."

While coronavirus tests can be difficult to obtain in many countries, China is rapidly expanding their availability and affordability, enabling the masses – not just frontline workers, people from hard-hit areas or the sick – to get tested. China is able to produce 5 million test kits a day, the country's industry ministry said last month.

While China has not tallied how many daily tests are being carried out nationally, its capacity is far greater than other countries including the United States, which has conducted around 300,000 tests daily on average in recent days, according to the non-profit Covid Tracking Project.

Even South Korea and Germany, hailed for tested widely, are currently able to conduct up to 30,000 and 120,000 tests a day respectively.

Major Chinese cities and provinces have published lists of hundreds of hospitals and clinics now authorised to perform tests and are expanding laboratory capabilities to allow people to obtain their nucleic acid test results in a few hours.

Some local governments have added the tests to basic medical insurance schemes, helping to cover costs which range from $8.50 to $38.

The easy access has helped firms, schools and entertainment providers to reopen after widespread testing. Hosts of popular Chinese singing competition, Singer 2020, invited 251 audience members to record a live show last month after testing them.

It is also laying the groundwork for mass testing efforts, should the need arise.

New cases in Wuhan

Authorities in the Chinese city, Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic began were moving forward on Wednesday with efforts to test all 11 million residents for the virus within 10 days after a handful of fresh infections were found there

District health commissions and neighborhood committees in the city of Wuhan have been told to develop a plan to test all residents in their jurisdictions, local media reports said. The directive also said the testing should focus on the elderly, densely populated areas and places with mobile populations.

A person who answered the mayor’s hotline in Wuhan on Wednesday said local districts had been given 10 days to carry out the tests.

The official declined to give his name because she was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The first cases of the new coronavirus were found in Wuhan in December, and by the end of January the government had placed the entire city and the surrounding region, home to more than 50 million people, under a strict lockdown.

A cluster of six new cases was recently found in one part of the city, the first local infections the government has reported in Wuhan since before the lockdown was eased in early April.

It wasn’t clear how many people would actually still need to be tested, as one expert at Wuhan University told The Global Times newspaper that up to 5 million residents of Wuhan have already been tested since the outbreak began.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 4.2 million people and killed over 291,000 – with more than 82,000 deaths in the US alone, the world’s highest toll. Experts say the actual numbers are likely far higher.

Testing not mandatory

Since April 13, each Chinese province has been required to provide daily reports on their virus testing efforts, and a stringent nationwide regime of screening, testing and quarantine has seen case numbers fall sharply since peaking in mid-February.

Even so, China has refrained from making testing mandatory for all people. Daily, countrywide testing data is not published, and the ramp up of testing capability has been uneven.

Hubei, Guangdong, Zhejiang and Heilongjiang, which have a combined population of over 267 million, are together able to conduct at least 321,000 tests a day, according to statements they made in April and May.

Beijing has 67 labs capable of processing 48,000 tests a day. But other less well–off provinces, including Yunnan and Guangxi, are playing catch–up, opening new labs in recent weeks.

And with testing compulsory only for certain categories of people, decisions are mainly left to companies or individuals.

A source from a Hunan-based state-owned steel mill that employs around 80 people said they were initially asked to take a test only if they lived near a confirmed case.

However, colleagues who travel outside the province are now asked to take a test before they return to the office.

Still, everyone who wants to get tested is being encouraged to do so. Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and JD.com allow people to book appointments via their widely used platforms and companies often waive the fees for workers.

One taxi company based in Guangzhou sent all 14,000 of its drivers for tests at the request of the government.

"This is given to the drivers for free," said Kuang Yali, head of Guangzhou Baiyun Car Rental Group's publicity department. "This is to give the drivers assurance, and to also put passengers at ease."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies