Turkey's control of coronavirus testing kits fuels concerns over cover-up - surgeon

(Updates with Erdoğan's meeting and measures against virus in ninth,10th and 13th paragraphs)

Turkey's control of coronavirus testing kits is fuelling concerns over a cover-up, a prominent surgeon wrote for The National Interest on Wednesday. 

“To date, Turkey has done about 2,500 tests. The lack of any identified cases provoked suspicion because if the test is negative, there was no other way to prove that the test might be positive,” said Dr. Ergin Koçyıldırım, a paediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburg’s School of Medicine.

A source at a privately owned hospital in Istanbul told Ahval that the government was controlling the distribution of kits and not allowing hospitals to independently order alternatives.

Turkey has said its own virus detection kits are the fastest and most accurate in the world. While most detection kits generally yield results in around 24 hours, the Turkish government said its kits - produced in Turkey by a private company and funded by the state - can produce results in 90 minutes. 

Despite the Health Ministry’s claims that Turkish coronavirus detection kits have been exported to several countries, including the United States, Koçyıldırım said that - to his knowledge - there was not a single institution or lab in that country using the tests.

Koçyıldırım also said that the Turkish government’s censorship of information was preventing people receiving reliable information on the coronavirus and was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists and has threatened to take legal action against social media users or journalists who criticise its coronavirus detection approach, said Koçyıldırım.

“Turkey has an ongoing economic crisis and relies on tourism revenue. If tourists are going to stop visiting Turkey, this year the economy might collapse. This could also be one of the reasons for not reporting a positive case for such a long period,” said Koçyıldırım.

After weeks of growing concerns among Turks about the growing threat posed by the virus and less than two days after the first case was reported in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called a cabinet meeting on Thursday to discuss additional measures against the virus.

Meanwhile, an aide to Erdoğan used a thermal camera to check people for fever who met the president during a visit to parliament on Wednesday, Reuters said.

Turkish authorities took early precautions such as thermal screening at airports, closing the border with Iran, and suspending air travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. But the lack of previously identified cases triggered suspicion among many, because Turkey is a major tourism destination and regional transit hub, and shares a border with Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the virus.

When Health Minister Fahrettin Koca did announce on Wednesday that Turkey’s first coronavirus patient had been identified, he resisted responding to questions by the media by claiming that this would violate the patient's privacy. 

After Wednesday’s announcement, the government ramped up further measures to control the spread of the virus, banning all public gatherings at schools and indefinitely cancelling leave for military personnel. The municipality in Istanbul, where the first case was detected, has cancelled all shows at city theatres, banned visits to museums, and halted vocational courses.

The tense relations and a lack of cooperation between the government and the Turkish Medical Association (TMA) - an independent medical and health professional association that aims to protect and promote public health in Turkey - could also be a problematic factor in informing the public about the virus, wrote Koçyıldırım.

“Despite their efforts to collaborate during the coronavirus outbreak, TMA reports that there has not been any government response yet,” he said.

Koçyıldırım said trust in government institutions was essential for advising the public and disseminating vital information. “Turkish citizens will have to contend with these problems [of trust] as they navigate the coronavirus crisis,” he said.