Editor’s Note: Since publication of this story, new information became available that cast doubt on the veracity of the June’s random-testing results, particularly as they relate to antibody testing. As a result, we have edited this story to remove all references to antibody testing and any conclusions that could have been made about the reported results. We regret any confusion caused by the initial report.
Skeptics long have said Thailand’s official count of coronavirus cases can’t be trusted. A piece of new evidence emerged Friday that might prove them right.
Every country in the world has undercounted Covid-19 cases, health experts say. Because 25-50 percent of victims never show symptoms and because up to 75 percent of those who do get sick only suffer only mild symptoms, many cases are never reported. And, of course, some countries and localities intentionally manipulate their statistics to show low or no infections.
Is Thailand one of those places?
Officially, the government’s Center for Covid-19 Situation Assessment has confirmed only 3,146 coronavirus cases with 58 deaths. While Coid-19 deaths were reported as early as January, the effort to report all fatalities accurately didn’t begin until the CCSA was formed in March, two months after the first case was officially reported. By then, the virus had been circulating widely among the population.
Anecdotal reports from hospitals around the country in March told of sharp increases in cases and deaths classified as “viral pneumonia” because Thailand had few tests or, critics claim, little will to test for it. If Thailand’s total deaths are analyzed there are proportionately much higher number of “excess deaths”, or fatalities greater the historical average for the period.
Up-to-date excess deaths statistics are not available, but, for example, by the end of March, Thailand had almost 2,400 more deaths than usually reported, 40 times the 57 deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 by the end of that month. Yet, thanks to an overall decline in the country’s overall mortality rate – down 8 percent since October according to the Public Health Ministry – excess deaths for 2020 through the end of March are only 4 percent higher since the start of the pandemic, according to figures calculated by the New York Times.
For the past 25 days, the CCSA has reported no confirmed cases of Covid-19 being spread in the community. The only cases, it said, were those found in Thais returning from overseas who were already in government quarantine.
But a report out of Yangon Friday afternoon casts doubt on the CCSA’s figures. Yangon said 23 migrant laborers deported from Thailand on June 8 all tested positive for the coronavirus.
The migrants had all been housed in an Immigration Bureau detention center near the Myanmar border on visa violations. Some are believed to be Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, although 23 had been transferred from a detention center in Songkhla.
Dozens of cases of Covid-19 were reported among inmates at the immigration jail in Songkla in early May. But by the end of the month, however, those reports stopped. But even if the virus had incubated two weeks in the 23 Burmese victims, they would have been infected after Thailand claimed the Songkhla center was clean.
Late Friday, Deputy Director-General of the Disease Control Department Thanarak Springphat hit back against Myanmar’s claims, calling for an investigation because he claimed the migrants tested negative in Thailand, insinuating their contracted Covid-19 in the week since returning home.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s Disease Control Department has nearly completed testing of Thailand’s at-risk population and found no infections.
Dr. Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai, the department’s director-general, said the ministry has conducted nearly 100,000 coronavirus tests on medical personnel, delivery people, public-transport officials, prison guards, inmates, mail carriers, migrant workers and those working in public and entertainment venues.
That high-risk population was tested randomly using statistical sampling methods with everyone receiving the most-accurate Reverse Transcription PCR test.
Worldwide, international health officials estimate that Covid-19 cases are being undercounted by a factor of 10. Based on the new Health Industry numbers, Thailand has been undercounting by a factor of seven.
Suwannachai said random testing is continuing and should be concluded by month’s end. But he admitted that testing for the virus itself – or even just antibodies – cannot confirm Thailand is free from Covid-19.
Despite Thailand’s relative success in conquering the virus, asymptomatic people are still out there spreading the virus, he said.