In Pakistan, coronavirus test results sometimes delivered in weeks — or never

A paramedic wearing protective gear takes a nose-swab sample to be tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Karachi, Pakistan June 27, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 10 July 2020

In Pakistan, coronavirus test results sometimes delivered in weeks — or never

  • Data available with Arab News shows testing numbers have decreased steadily since last month
  • The timely delivery of results by government-run testing facilities has become a major problem

KARACHI: On June 2, a government coronavirus testing team came to the Peshawar Press Club to collect journalist Mehmood Jan Babar’s sample after he called a helpline and informed authorities several people in his immediate circle had tested positive for the disease and he needed a diagnosis.

Babar soon developed symptoms of the coronavirus and has since fully recovered. But his test results have still not arrived.

“I’m still waiting,” he told Arab News via phone from Peshawar this week. “Despite several reminders I have not gotten my results yet.”

The World Health Organization has called on all countries to ramp up their testing programs as the best way to slow the advance of the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter to the government last month, WHO said Pakistan should increase its daily testing to 50,000.

But data available with Arab News shows testing numbers have decreased steadily since last month and the timely delivery of results by government facilities has become a major issue. Meanwhile, infections continue to grow, with the government’s coronavirus portal recording 243,599 cases and 5,058 deaths on Friday.

Dr. Azra Pechuho, the health minister of Sindh province which has recorded the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan, said reported delays in results were due to a temporary shortage of testing kits, a problem that had since been resolved. 

“It [getting results] can take from a few hours to a day or two, depending upon the lab’s workload and efficiency,” Dr. Faisal Sultan, the prime minister’s focal person on COVID-19, said, denying that there were weeks-long delays.

But 24 percent of those who participated in a Twitter survey conducted by Arab News said they themselves, or their relatives, had to wait more than a week for results.

“Why should I get tested if I will get my result after I have recovered or been killed by the virus?” said Muhammad Naeem Khan, a young trader in Quetta who said his results were delivered after three weeks. 

A news TV cameraman in Karachi, who declined to be named, said he was tested as part of official policy at his workplace eight days before an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange building on June 28.

“While I was covering the attack, our human resource officer informed me that I had the virus,” he said. Meanwhile, he had continued to go to the office and cover events and said he feared he might have infected others.

Such stories are becoming more and more common and were contributing to people’s resistance to getting tested, experts said, and may be one reason for the downward trend in recent testing figures.

Other reasons include that the government had not worked on improving testing capacity, said Dr. Abdul Bari Khan, Chief Executive Officer of Karachi’s Indus Hospital.

“Second, when a person is diagnosed, others living with him or her don’t get tests assuming they may also be positive already,” he said.

Conspiracy theories around the coronavirus have also not helped. Misinformation on social media platforms, including viral memes that say people who test positive will be immediately quarantined in shamblic government facilities where they will be injected with poisonous substances leading to death, have kept people from getting tested.

But the government insists the decline in testing numbers is because fewer people are getting infected or developing symptoms.

“Very clearly downward demand is the main reason. Other factors are possible but reduced demand is key in my view,” Sultan, the PM’s focal person, said.

An analysis of up to four weeks of data obtained from officials in Pakistan’s four provinces and the country’s capital show testing cuts.

In Sindh province, data shows 80,499 tests with a daily average of 11,500 were conducted between June 15 and June 21, 2020. The number sharply dropped in the next seven days to 56,544 (daily average 8,078) and slightly improved with 66,986 tests (daily average 9,569) between June 29 and July 5, 2020.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where health officials have been directed to scale up testing, the number of tests conducted between June 29 to July 5 were 13,407 with an average of 1,915 tests conducted per day whereas a week earlier, 17,305 people were tested.

In Punjab, according to official data, 60,540 (average 8,648) tests were conducted between June 5 and June 11, and 69,845 (average 9,977) between June 12 to June 18. The number of tests dropped to 64,237 (average 9,176) and 56,923 (average 8,133) between June 26 and July 2.

In Balochistan 6,650 people were tested with an average of 9,50 daily tests done between June 5 and June 11, 2020. The number of tests dropped to 5,554 — average 793 — in the next seven days and then to 5,057 with an average of 722 the following week. Data showed 4,130 (average 590) tests between June 26 and July 2.

In Islamabad Capital Territory, 16,401 tests were conducted with a daily average of 2,343 between June 29 and July 5, 2020. A week before this, the number of tests was 16,856 with an average of 2408 tests a week, 19,878 (2,839) tests two weeks earlier, and 24,189 tests with a daily average of 3,455 three weeks ago, between June 8 and June 1.


Long-time PM Khan aide appointed new Pakistani health chief 

Updated 03 August 2020

Long-time PM Khan aide appointed new Pakistani health chief 

  • Dr Faisal Sultan for years served as the CEO of Shaukat Khanum Hospital, which was founded by PM Khan
  • Last week, Dr Zafar Mirza stepped down as heath chief citing criticism on his government

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday appointed Dr Faisal Sultan as the country's new health chief, just days after Dr Zafar Mirza resigned. 

Sultan for years served as the CEO of Shaukat Khanum Hospital, which was founded by PM Khan, and in March this year was appointed the PM's focal person on the coronavirus.

"The Prime Minister has been pleased to appoint Dr Faisal Sultan as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination with immediate effect," a statement from the PM office said. Sultan will hold the status of a federal minister.

Last week, Pakistan’s de facto health minister Zafar Mirza stepped down in the middle of the pandemic citing criticism on his government’s advisers who hold dual nationality.

Mirza was among several special assistants to the prime minister, or SAPMs, who have faced criticism from opposition parties for being either a dual national or non-elected members of the parliament.

Another of the advisers, on digitization, Tania Aidrus resigned citing her dual citizenship. Mirza has not said he held any other nationality other than Pakistan in his asset declaration.

“Due to ongoing negative discussion about the role of SAPMs & criticism on the gov, I choose to resign,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “I am satisfied that I leave at a time when COVID-19 has declined in Pakistan.”

Pakistan has lately seen a downward trend in COVID-19 cases.