The Shan State government is waiting for Union-level approval on whether they can accept the international donation of what would be the first two laboratory facilities capable of processing tests for COVID-19 in the state.
The labs are being donated by two Buddhist groups based in Yunnan, China: former students of the Five Precepts school has offered to set up one laboratory in Lashio, and the Mahayana Yunnan Buddhist Fundaising Committee has offered to build one in Sao Sam Htun hospital in Taunggyi.
Currently, all COVID-19 testing swabs must be flown or driven to the National Health Laboratory in Yangon in order for the results to be determined, likely contributing to the low rate of testing for the coronavirus and a delay in getting answers.
Social welfare minister for the state Soe Nyunt Lin, who is also a government spokesperson, described the possibility of having two testing laboratories as “good news for Shan State.”
“We are seeking permission from Union Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS) on whether we can receive this donation,” he explained. “If the MoHS allows us to accept them immediately, the two labs will arrive from Yunnan to Mandalay on April 22.”
At the time of reporting, the Shan State government was still awaiting the MoHS decision. Due to the highly centralized nature of decision-making within Burma’s government ministries—including health—states must seek approval from Naypyidaw before making any changes to existing systems and structures.
Minister Soe Nyunt Lin noted that the donated laboratories were valued at an estimated 400 million kyat each, or more than US$281,000. SHAN reported in early April that the Shan State government had just $360,000 left in its disaster relief fund to fight the coronavirus.
The social welfare minister said that another challenge to testing has been that all nasal and throat swabs sent to the National Health Lab are required to be transported by air to Yangon and accompanied by a medic. But the Air Kanbawza flights from Heho airport outside Taunggyi—the only airline that has not suspended its operations—are scheduled for only two days this month.
“They used to send swab samples to Yangon by Air Kanbawza. But the Kanbawza airline will operate only on April 23 and 29 this month. So I don’t know how they will send swab samples to Yangon,” an Air Kanbawza agent in Tachileik told SHAN.
Without these flights, the swabs from tests that have been carried out have had to be driven to Yangon by car, a trip which can take more than one full day from rural areas of eastern and northern Shan State.
According to the US-based Center for Disease Control, specimens for testing must be kept cold for the duration of their time in transit, stored at temperatures below -70 degrees Celsius, and shipped on dry ice.
On April 20, the MoHS reported that there were 119 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, five deaths and nine recoveries.