Inside the biological safety laboratories that form part of the ANLIS health institute (National Administration of Laboratories and Health Institutes 'Dr. Carlos Malbrán'), a dozen scientists are working against the clock to identify different types of respiratory viruses – among them the infamous COVID-19, more popularly known as the coronavirus.
More than 64,000 cases of Covid-19 have been diagnosed with upwards of 1,500 deaths, mainly in China, where the epidemic began at the end of 2019.
In Argentina, Health Ministry laboratories and the PAHO/WHO National Influenza Centre have tested seven samples that meet the definition of a suspected case of coronavirus. These tests involved people with fever, signs of respiratory infection or those who were hospitalised within 14 days after having been in China, prior to the onset of symptoms, and those who travelled to Hubei province.
"All cases [to date] are negative," Elsa Baumeister, head of the Respiratory Virus Department at Anlis-Malbrán, told Perfil last weekend, stressing that for the moment the risk of the coronavirus reaching Argentina "is low." She warned, however, that the possibility of an imported case could be ruled out, "so the whole health system is on alert."
Until last week, the lab was running a test known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to detect all coronaviruses, a process that could take up to 48 hours.
"Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that infect not only humans but also many other animal species,” said Baumeister.
“In humans, we have documented the circulation of four human coronaviruses: two closely related to the common cold and two others that can produce milder respiratory infections, but also pneumonia,” the specialist concluded.
Attempts to speed up diagnoses have drawn attention. This week, the Argentine start-up firm Caspr Biotech went viral after creating a portable kit – similar to a pregnancy test – that can detect the presence of coronavirus within an hour.
However, few mentioned that the firm's creation was a prototype and that the test had not yet been validated for use by the health authorites.
Baumeister, questioned about this, gave a simple answer: "When you are in science and you want to communicate something that can work, you have to prove it.”
“It is important that the performance of this be demonstrated in order to make the diagnoses. The technique has been proven to work for other things, but in this case we have no information," she added.
Diagnosis or not, the epidemic has sparked chaos for some Argentines. Via social media, a group of 14 individuals from across the country who are living in Hubei – the outbreak's epicentre – asked this week for the government's help in returning to the country. It is believed there are some 2,000 Argentines living in China as a whole.
The Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that the 14 would that they will brought back home next Wednesday from the Chinese province.
Their evacuation will be possible thanks to the willingness of the Ukrainian government to give up some of their "quota" on planes to make space for the Argentines. Previously, Alberto Fernández's government had tried to coordinate their evacuation via planes from Brazil and Italy.
The only Argentine known to be infected – a passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship – is said to be doing well, according to local reports, after having been moved to a hospital in Yokohama, Japan.
Argentina was one of the last countries in the region to announce a solution for its citizens stranded in China. With the support of France, Mexico evacuated 10 people on February 1, while Brazil did the same with 34 of its nationals one week later.
Argentina initially attempted to evacuate its citizens on the Brazilian Air Force flight that arrived in China on 8 February. However, the government of Jair Bolsonaro announced that no more slots were available after offering to repatriate Polish citizens.
According to reports in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo citing anonymous Brazilian officials, the decision to transfer "Europeans and not South Americans" had "displeased diplomats from neighbouring countries."