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How does our Covid-19 testing compare to South Korea’s?

Newsroom logo Newsroom 15/03/2020 Farah Hancock
a hand holding a cup © Provided by Newsroom

If community spread of Covid-19 happens here, how are we placed to test aggressively like South Korea? 

New Zealand has the capability to test between 750 and 1000 people for Covid-19 a day. To reach South Korea’s rate our capacity would need to be closer to 1500 per day.

Taking into account the difference in population size, our current rate is around half to two-thirds of the rate of what South Korea - lauded for its success in containing an outbreak - is able to do. 

South Korea can process tests of 0.026 percent of its population per day. Our capacity is between 0.0016 to 0.0021 percent of the population. To match South Korea’s rate, our testing capacity would need to be around 1500 per day.

So far South Korea has processed around 250,000 tests - roughly 0.5 percent of its population. It might not sound like much, but it has meant the country has contained the virus within the country by putting people, not entire cities, into quarantine. 

More than 8000 South Koreans have been confirmed to have the virus but the death rate has been a low 0.77 percent compared to a global average of 3.4 percent. Part of South Korea’s low death rate could be due to more young people than in other countries confirmed to have the virus, although some epidemiologists have speculated catching the virus early may have also made a difference.

Related Slideshow: FAQs: Facts about COVID-19 as per World Health Organization


A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newsroom on Friday, prior to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s weekend announcement requiring overseas visitors to self isolate, the current daily testing capacity was 750, with laboratories in Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin able to process tests. 

“Our Auckland lab is also taking steps to increase its capacity and other labs in New Zealand could also be set up to test for Covid-19, if needed.”

The processing time for a test varies by site, equipment and demand. The ESR’s website notes a next day turn-around time for tests. 

During Saturday’s announcement, where Arden came one step closer to closing New Zealand’s borders completely, she said the number of tests per day New Zealand could process was 1000.

The Ministry of Health also told Newsroom planning was under way to scale up our ability to contact trace people exposed to others with Covid-19.

“These measures remain critical to limit the risk of spread.”

To date, all cases of Covid-19 in the country have been from a person bringing it in from overseas, or from a close contact.

What’s referred to as community spread appears to not have occurred. If, and when, this occurs in New Zealand, our ability to test could be the difference between an outcome like Italy, or one like South Korea.

While community spread hasn’t been recorded, the testing focus remains on close contacts and people arriving from abroad. 

To qualify for a test, people need to satisfy a number of criteria which are a mix of symptoms and history. A case of the sniffles is not likely to be tested.

These include people with a fever of or above 38C or an acute respiratory infection with one of the following symptoms: shortness of breath, cough or sore throat with or without fever. They also must have travelled from a country of concern, or been in close or casual contact of a suspect, probable, or confirmed case within the past 14 days.

Healthcare workers and people in intensive care units, or high dependency units with community-acquired pneumonia, will be tested. 

The Ministry of Health said it would need to look into whether it could provide data on the number of people who had requested but not received a test.

South Korea has a different approach to testing. It’s not just the number of tests it can conduct and process in a day that is important. The country is targeting tests in a way many other countries would struggle to do. 

It has been testing anybody who has been in contact with a confirmed case. To do this it’s looked at credit card and mobile phone usage as well as CCTV footage. Tests cost $220 but are free for those who test positive and for people linked to confirmed cases. 

While community spread hasn’t happened in New Zealand, a number of events were cancelled over the weekend to limit potential spread. Others went ahead including WOMAD in New Plymouth and the bagpipe competition Pipe On In NZ Championships in Invercargill.

The bagpipe competition included the Clan Gordon Pipe Band from Washington, where at least 506 people have tested positive for Covid-19. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

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