Bandung. West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil has asked for the central government's help to do more rapid testing for Covid-19 in the province, fearing that thousands of asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus roam freely to spread the disease in Indonesia's most populous province.
The Health Ministry announced on Friday that 223 people have contracted the virus in West Java, the second-highest number in Indonesia after Jakarta.
Across the archipelago, 1,986 people have been infected by the coronavirus, according to the ministry's data.
The number of fatalities in Indonesia had risen to 181 on Friday, overtaking South Korea to be the third-highest in Asia after China and Iran.
Ridwan, however, feared that the infection rate in the archipelago was actually worse.
"I am convinced that the number of [Covid-19] cases is many times over the current figure. But, because we haven't tested that many people, the data showed only a fraction of them," Ridwan said in a teleconference with Vice President Ma'ruf Amin.
The governor said West Java had done more than 15,000 rapid testings across the province and found 677 positive cases. The figure has yet to be included in the official national tally, as the province still needs to confirm it with more accurate tests.
The rapid test – which works by detecting antibody in blood or sputum – is less accurate than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique that's done in more advanced laboratories.
But, the rapid test is cheap and does not require a lab specialist to administer, ideal for detecting the virus's spread in a massive population lacking doctors and nurses.
Indonesia has only conducted 7 PCR tests for every million of its population, data compiled by Hamburg-based research firm Statista showed. Malaysia, in comparison, has conducted 422. South Korea 6,148.
Ridwan said the rapid testing could fill in the gap for quickly ramping up the country's testing capability – otherwise limited by lack of testing labs, technicians and reagents.
Indonesia, Ridwan said, needs to conduct at least 2 million rapid tests soon. "I hope this will become the central government's focus of attention," Ridwan said to Vice President Ma'ruf.
The rapid test has helped the province to quickly trace and isolate two infection clusters in the region, he said.
In West Java's first cluster, Sukabumi, 300 police academy students tested positive for the virus.
"Initially there were only seven positive cases there. After I sent the rapid test kits, we discovered 300 people tested positive. Now Sukabumi is the city with the most [Covid-19] cases outside Jakarta," Ridwan said.
Rapid test was also key in detecting another cluster, this time among parishioners of Bethel Church in the province's capital, Bandung.
"In this Bethel Church cluster, the pastor was the first to test positive for Covid-19. Then we did a quick test of the 600-strong congregation and found 226 positive results, or 35 percent," Ridwan said.
Rapid testing's availability is also critical as provinces like West Java are already seeing an influx of returning daily wage workers from Jakarta and its satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi, which are now the epicenter of the epidemic in Indonesia.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said on Thursday the central government would not officially ban the annual mudik, or Idul Fitri exodus, when people return en masse to their hometown to celebrate the Islamic holy day.
The president only urged people in urban centers to stay put during the Idul Fitri holiday to avoid spreading the disease to regional areas.
Ridwan said he would also prefer it if people originally from West Java refrain from returning to their hometowns at the moment.
He said currently 70,000 people had already returned to villages and small towns in the province while the local government is barely able to track the movement of people from red zone areas like Jakarta who are supposed to be put under surveillance (ODP) and test them all.
"If there are more ODPs, our quick test capability will be overwhelmed," Ridwan said.
Ten-Buck Testing Kit
Santo Purnama, an Indonesian based in the United States and co-founder of Sensing Self, a biotechnology startup based in Singapore, said on Wednesday he had been trying for four weeks to obtain a license from the Indonesian health ministry to produce its $10 Covid-19 self-test kit.
The kit has already secured European CE certification and was approved by the National Institute of Virology and the Indian Council of Medical Research and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Santo said in a statement.
"The war against COVID-19 is a war against time. We must reduce the growth rate of this pandemic by carrying out tests as widely as possible. We hope the Indonesian government could authorize our initiative to bring these independent test kits to Indonesia," Santo said.
This was not the first time red tapes snagged rapid testing for Covid-19 in Indonesia. State-owned firm Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia had to wait for more than a week to import 500,000 low-cost rapid Covid-19 testing kits from China due to slow paperwork at the Health Ministry.