Laos, officially at least, remains free of the new coronavirus. A Laos-shaped imprint stands out stark and white against a sea of red on any map of the pandemic. And yet many within the country question the authenticity of this claim.
Laos announced that it had set up a task force committee last month to tackle the spread of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. The task force began assessing the impact of an outbreak, although no case had yet been confirmed in the country. It will draw up a plan to address the potential impact on Chinese workers engaging in projects in Laos, and regulate the price of protective equipment, such as face masks, gloves, and protective clothing.
Lao Minister of Health, Professor Bounkong Sihavong, spoke at a press conference in Vientiane in late January responding to rumors of patients in Lao hospitals that had contracted the virus. He maintained that there had been no confirmation of any patients infected with the new coronavirus in Laos and that the government would take swift action against anyone who spread misinformation in social media.
A hotline was promptly set up for citizens to voice their concerns or report potential cases of the coronavirus, and temperature screening began at all the country’s airports.
Laos then effectively closed its borders to tourists from China, but not before at least one known carrier of the virus entered the country, traveling from Vientiane, through Vang Vieng, and then Luang Prabang.
So how could it be that while the number of cases climbs among Laos’s immediate neighbors, this small nation bordering China itself, remains free of the new coronavirus? For a country of only 7 million, with few urban centers and a capital city of under one million inhabitants, is it possible, despite however improbable, that the virus has not spread?
The answer is that the virus is likely here, perhaps lurking among the population, but remains undetected or unreported.
However, Laos does indeed have the capacity to test for the new coronavirus. In a recent interview, Dr. Phonebadith Sangxayalath, Director of the National Center for Laboratory and Epidemiology (NCLE), Ministry of Health, stated that Laos is well equipped to test for the new Coronavirus, citing his center’s ability to test for the MERS virus in recent years, and its continued surveillance of other viruses such as H1N1. Dr. Phonebadith maintains that the same principles are applied when testing for the new Coronavirus.
Eleven suspected cases were tested by the center, with nine returning negative results, and two undergoing further tests. If the other two cases do appear positive for the virus, Dr. Phonebadith assures that the world will be notified.