Next wave of COVID-19 studies stuck behind government financial decision

Coronavirus testing starts at Tallinn Airport.
Coronavirus testing starts at Tallinn Airport. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The last nation-wide coronavirus spread monitoring study in Estonia concluded in early-October and although scientists say a new one should be initiated to monitor recent developments, it is suspended due to a governmental financing decision.

The last stage of coronavirus spread research conducted by Tartu University scientists concluded in early-October and the results showed that the coronavirus can spread outside of the focal points of outbreaks, often without being noticed.

Dr. Ruth Kalda, head of the study, said: "Our study showed that most - some two thirds or even half of all infected people - were asymptomatic."

But the situation has changed considerably now. Dr. Kalda is convinced that the hidden spread has gotten even more wide-spread by now and new studies should be kicked off to measure the seriousness of the situation, to be able to develop necessary measures.

Kalda assesses that the spread of coronavirus is much wider than the Health Board's (Terviseamet) suggestion of a quarter being asymptomatic.

Kalda said: "We think that the hidden and asymptomatic spread is considerably more than the 25 percent the Health Board is stating. They can say it based on what they are testing and have identified based on close contact monitoring, but we find that all positive cases cannot be discovered by testing. We think there is more."

The family medicine professor continued: "The situation in the start of October was much different to what it is now. That there is an explosive increase in positive cases also shows that the hidden spread has increased."

She assesses that new studies should be initiated in fall-winter, but the decision still stands behind the government. Namely, the status of financing for the studies has depleted and a new decision needs to be made.

Kalda applied for funding for a new wave of studies at the start of October when the last results were presented. The government was supposed to discuss the funding question on Thursday but the scientists have not heard back.

The study leader said if studies are continued on the conditions that a little over 2,000 people are analyzed, on stage will cost north of €200,000. But these stages should be conducted every two weeks, Kalda stated.

"It would be reasonable to do research regularly, in two-week intervals for example because then it has the capacity to actually show something and predict spread and something can be done in light of the results. The fall-winter period is critical, that is when the studies should take place," the professor said.

It will be a few weeks from a positive financing decision until research is initiated because a procurement to find partners must be organized. Current studies have been led by Kantar Emor, Synlab and Medicum.

The decision could come next week

These particular funding decisions fall under the responsibility of Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) and Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center).

Social affairs minister Tanel Kiik told ERR that the government has discussed funding for a new wave of studies on many occasions.

Kiik said: "Continuing this research is certainly reasonable from the social affairs ministry's perspective because it gives important input on the domain of health, allowing us to know what the hidden spread of COVID-19 is - how many asymptomatic carriers there potentially is and if some counties have hidden spread that might not show up from regular family physician testing. We presented our arguments [Thursday]. I hope we reach a positive decision in the near future."

The government did not yet make a decision on funding. Kiik justifies it by the number of questions asked about both the monitoring study and the sewage study, also conducted by Tartu University researchers. The government has decided to allocate €5 million of the coming year's budget, but the financing for studies this year is still missing.

€800,000 should be enough to finish research this year, allowing for another four to five stages of research.

Kiik concluded: "We had a more specific discussion [on Thursday]. What is the exact efficiency ratio, what is the budgetary cost, what are the main arguments from a health perspective. I hope to give you a positive response in the coming week."


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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