Asia Today: South Korea OKs single test for COVID-19 and flu

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Health officials in South Korea have approved a new test that’s designed to detect both COVID-19 and seasonal influenza from the same samples, which would help prevent disruption at hospitals as the pandemic stretches into the flu season.

The country has struggled to stem the coronavirus, which some experts say could spread more broadly during cold weather when people spend more time indoors.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday reported 118 new cases of COVID-19, most of them in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area. The national caseload is now at 26,925, including 474 deaths.

People have been increasingly venturing out in public after the government eased social distancing restrictions last month to support the weak economy.

“Despite efforts by health authorities to trace contacts and suppress transmissions, such efforts have been outpaced by the speed of viral spread,” senior Health Ministry official Yoon Taeho said during a virus briefing.

The new test, which targets genes that are specific to both COVID-19 and seasonal flu, is an evolved version of PCR tests that are used to detect COVID-19 from samples taken from noses or throats. Laboratories use machines to amplify genetic materials so that even tiny quantities of the virus can be detected.

The illnesses are hard to tell apart by their symptoms, so having a diagnosis for both in three to six hours “would be convenient for patients and also reduce the burden of medical workers,” Yoon said.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— India’s capital reported a record high 6,725 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, hit by its worst wave of coronavirus infections since March. New Delhi has averaged more than 5,200 cases a day this past week, a spike the Health Ministry attributes to the festival season. India overall added 46,253 cases, raising its total past 8.3 million. The ministry on Wednesday also reported another 514 fatalities, raising the overall death toll to 123,611. The ministry has warned the virus situation in New Delhi could worsen due to people crowding markets for festival shopping, coupled with the onset of winter and high air pollution levels in the capital.

— New Zealand’s unemployment rate rose to 5.3% in the September quarter, a better result than predicted amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, government figures show. The rate was up from 4% in the previous quarter. Back in May when the government’s budget was announced, the Treasury was predicting unemployment would rise to almost 10% by now. Since then, the government has borrowed and spent billions of dollars on wage subsidies as it tries to mitigate job losses. Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the better-than-expected figures show its recovery and rebuild plan is working. The figures show women’s employment has been disproportionately affected. New Zealand has been largely successful in its efforts to eliminate the virus from its shores.

— More than 200 Sri Lankan policemen have been infected with the coronavirus and another 2,213 have been quarantined as cases surge in the capital and its suburbs, police said Wednesday. Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said 221 police officers have tested positive for the virus. Health authorities have linked the infections to a cluster that emerged from the country’s main fish market near Colombo. Sri Lanka experienced a new outbreak of the disease last month when two clusters emerged — one centered on a garment factory and other on the fish market. Confirmed cases from the two clusters have grown to 8,265. Sri Lanka’s total number of cases since March have reached 11,744, including 23 fatalities. The government has imposed a curfew in densely populated Western province, where the capital is located. Authorities have also closed schools and key public offices, banned public gatherings and restricted public transport.