Coronavirus News Asia

US scientists seek answers to Bali’s Covid-19 secret

JAKARTA – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is helping to launch a study of the coronavirus pandemic on the Indonesian resort island of Bali as infections show an appreciable increase and Australian and Balinese authorities put the blinkers on visions of the two countries opening up a tourism corridor.

The highly-regarded, Atlanta-based institution will help Indonesia’s Health Ministry and local partners to measure the presence of SARS-CoV2 antibodies in an effort to determine the proportion of the population that has had a prior infection.

“This is in contrast to a PCR (or swab) test, that assesses the presence of the virus itself in active, current infections,” CDC’s Jakarta representative, Juliette Morgan, told Asia Times. “Through the survey, Bali will have a better understanding of how much transmission of the virus has occurred.”

“It will give us a more complete picture of what has happened and helps to understand what to expect,” she said. “It should be repeated to monitor the epidemic over time and should be conducted in other cities and locations throughout Indonesia.”

It will be the first scientific initiative to try and answer the question of why the popular tourist destination — originally feared to be a virus Petri dish — has so far had only 895 confirmed infections and six confirmed deaths over the four-month lockdown, along with 553 recoveries.

Diplomats say they hope the field study, to be launched in the next two months, might have some relevance for other parts of Indonesia, where the relatively slow-spreading virus has claimed 2,373 lives out of total caseload of 43,803 patients, about half of them on populous Java.

In the absence of wholesale testing, the accuracy of the figures is open to speculation, with some health groups claiming the cases could be five or even 10 times higher than reported among Bali’s population of 4.5 million, including many long-staying foreign residents.

A mask-clad Balinese woman during the Galungan holiday at Jagatnata temple in Denpasar, Indonesia’s resort island of Bali. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Deaths may be much higher as well because the kelihan, the traditional village leaders who control the graveyards and funeral ceremonies, do not necessarily have to report numbers to local government officials.

But the Balinese medical community remains sanguine about a pending health disaster. “We don’t see it,” says one doctor, whose private hospital is testing 100 patients a day, mostly for employment or travel reasons. “We would welcome a CDC study.”

The doctor says testing has now become a growth industry on the island, with small clinics opening up on a daily basis and prices for both blood and swab tests coming down as a result. “That’s our bread and butter now,” she says.

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