Free self-test kits are a gamechanger in Thailand’s Covid battle
The National Health Security Board recently approved the procurement of 8.5 million Covid-19 antigen test kits and plans to distribute them to the people.
This will be an essential step to curb the current wave of coronavirus that has disrupted Thai society and the economy.
After Delta infections were first reported in June, the daily caseload in Thailand surged to more than 20,000 confirmed cases and between 150 and 300 deaths.
Thailand is not alone. Countries across Southeast Asia are grappling with the Delta variant, pushing governments to restrict travel and economic activities.
Around 80 per cent of people infected with Covid-19 show mild or no symptoms, which helps coronavirus spread swiftly because they are unaware of their infection and transmit the virus to others.
A high prevalence of Covid-19 is reported in many residential areas, especially in Bangkok’s low-income ghettos, where household members are crowded in small living spaces. Many have no clue they are infected unless one (or more) of their family members show symptoms. In many cases, the symptoms develop into serious illness.
The best way to handle this situation, and the Delta variant, is to make people aware of their infection so they will isolate themselves as quickly as possible. Providing them with access to self-test kits, free of charge, is vital.
Previously, only RT-PCR tests were available, with a daily testing capacity of 50,000 to 70,000 in total. It requires at least 24 hours to obtain a result from an RT-PCR test. The long waiting time and limited number of facilities providing RT-CPR tests discouraged many people from getting the tests.
To solve this challenge, Public Health Ministry in collaboration with Food and Drug Administration approved antigen test kits for both professional and home use in July, making the self-test kits available for sale over the counter.
However, many low-income households will not be able to afford the self-test kits. Many people, even the middle class, will hesitate to get tests if they must pay out of their pocket, especially in the ongoing economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
This prompted the NHSO to procure and distribute 8.5 million free antigen test kits to people nationwide.
It cost the government 1 billion baht. But we believe the outcome is worthwhile. It will not only help curb the spread of coronavirus and open a path back to normal life. It will also ensure health equity, as people will be able to get tests regardless of their income.
The NHSO has been working with the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation and Rajavithi Hospital to find a supplier with quality products at the right price.
We expect that, by September, millions of self-test kits will be handed out by health providers and pharmacies across the country. The beneficiaries will be Thai citizens and migrant workers whose lives are equally threatened by Covid-19.
We plan to distribute more antigen test kits throughout the 2022 fiscal year as we will likely have to live with coronavirus for the next year or two.
Providing free self-test kits is not a new initiative. We have learned of its benefits from other countries, including Britain, where people without Covid-19 symptoms can order free rapid lateral flow test kits online with the National Health Service (NHS).
They receive the test kits, which provide results in minutes, via the post or by picking them up at local test collection sites and pharmacies.
In Singapore, the government announced distribution of antigen test kits to all households as part of its approach of “living with the coronavirus” instead of imposing restrictions on people's mobility and economic activities.
Singapore has started providing antigen test kits to people linked with Covid-19 clusters, including residents and customers who visited markets and food centres connected to the Jurong Fishery Port, the centre of a recent major cluster.
Early this month, the Netherlands government announced that it would offer two free self-test kits to all eight million households as part of a campaign urging Dutch people to test themselves on their return from summer vacation.
These examples show that many countries see the benefits of extensive testing and its crucial role in reopening borders.
However, testing alone is not enough. We need to implement an effective Covid-19 vaccination programme. The Thai government has put great effort into securing vaccines, both mRNA and inactivated vaccines, from manufacturers.
The NHSO will support all the measures taken by the government to keep society and the economy running despite the ongoing pandemic.