The country bought a huge number of antibody test kits. False negatives and thousands of deaths from misdiagnosis.
In the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, overwhelmed Peru’s health officials faced a dilemma: They knew molecular testing was the best option for detecting Covid-19, but they didn’t have the labs, supplies, or technicians.
However, there was a cheaper alternative– Antibody tests, mainly sourced from China, which were on the market at a fraction of the price and could give a positive or negative result in a matter of minutes with a simple finger stick.
In March, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra announced that he had authorized the purchase of 1.6 million tests, almost all to detect antibodies.
Now, a series of interviews with experts, public purchase orders, government resolutions, patient statements and health reports on the virus show that the country’s bid for rapid antibody tests was not correct.
Unlike almost all other countries, Peru relies heavily on rapid antibody tests to diagnose active cases, although that is not the purpose for which they were designed. These tests cannot detect early infections of Covid-19, making it difficult to quickly identify and isolate patients.
Epidemiologists interviewed by The Associated Press say that using them in this inappropriate way produces a considerable number of false positives and negatives, which has helped fuel one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.
Additionally, several of the antibody tests purchased for use in Peru have been rejected by the United States after independent analyzes found that did not meet standards to accurately detect the new coronavirus.
Today, the South American nation has the highest per capita death rate from coronavirus in the world, according to John Hopkins University, and local doctors believe one reason is the country’s failed focus on the kinds of tests it performs.
“It is a multisystem failure,” explained Dr. Victor Zamora, Peru’s former health minister. “We should already stop the hand of rapid tests.”
As COVID-19 cases emerged around the world, low- and middle-income nations found themselves at a crossroads.
The World Health Organization asked authorities to increase tests to prevent the virus from spreading uncontrollably. One test in particular, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, was considered the best option.
Using a sample collected from the highest part of the nose, the test is performed on specialized machines that can detect the genetic material of the virus within a few days of contracting the infection.
If Covid cases are detected early, patients can be isolated and their contacts traced, thus cutting the chain of contagion.
Within weeks of the initial outbreak in China, the virus’s genome sequences were available and specialists in Asia and Europe went to work creating their own tests. But in parts of the world like Africa and Latin America that option did not exist. They would have to wait for the tests to become available, and when that happened, the huge demand meant that most could not secure the amount they needed.
Nations that started preparing early or had a relatively strong health care system did the best. Two weeks after Colombia identified its first case, the country had 22 public and private laboratories registered to perform PCR tests. In contrast, Peru had a single laboratory that was capable of performing 200 tests per day.
For years, Peru has invested less and less of its GDP in public health than other countries in the region. As the new virus approached, glaring deficiencies in the country became apparent.