We look at the reality of COVID-19 testing in Colombia: how many COVID-19 tests are being done, plans for growth and compare to testing in other countries.

Many Medellin Guru readers have asked about COVID-19 testing in Colombia. Also, I have seen many inaccurate posts about COVID-19 testing in Medellín and Colombia on the Internet including in several Facebook groups.

In this article, we look at the facts of COVID-19 testing in Colombia including the number of tests Colombia has actually done, how many labs in Colombia are currently doing tests and Colombia’s plans to increase testing capacity.

We also look at a major testing issues Colombia has faced and will continue to face due to a global shortage of test kits and chemical reagents for testing for COVID-19.

COVID-19 Testing in Colombia 

On May 25, 2020, Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) reported that it had completed a total of 260,812 COVID-19 tests in Colombia.

This means that Colombia has completed 5,138 COVID-19 tests per million people in Colombia based on a population of 50.8 million.

We compare this COVID-19 testing in Colombia with several other countries in Latin America as well to the U.S., UK and South Korea in the following table:

COVID-19 testing in several countries, source of data Worldometer and countries, 5/25

COVID-19 testing in several countries, source of data Worldometer and countries, 5/25

Only Brazil, Chile and Peru in Latin American have done more total COVID-19 tests than in Colombia. But Colombia has done more tests per million in population than Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Also, some countries have done more testing per million in population such as Chile, Ecuador, Panama and Peru, as seen in the above table.

In addition, Colombia has the lowest positive testing percentage out of every country in the above table except for South Korea.

Colombia has been ramping up testing for coronavirus over the past several weeks as seen in the following graphic:

Counts of COVID-19 tests in Colombia by week, source Instituto Nacional de Salud, 5/17

Counts of COVID-19 tests in Colombia by week, source Instituto Nacional de Salud, 5/17

For the week of May 4-10, Colombia averaged 4,656 tests per day. And the week of May 11-17, Colombia averaged 6,432 tests per day. And the following shows that test counts per day from May 2 to May 25:

  • May 3 – 4,199 tests
  • May 4 – 4,228 tests
  • May 5 – 4,076 tests
  • May 6 – 4,005 tests
  • May 7 – 4,242 tests
  • May 8 – 4,387 tests
  • May 9 – 5,173 tests
  • May 10 – 6,484 tests
  • May 11 – 7,537 tests
  • May 12 – 6,805 tests
  • May 13 – 6,061 tests
  • May 14 – 5,251 tests
  • May 15 – 6,062 tests
  • May 16 – 7,002 tests
  • May 17 – 6,303 tests
  • May 18 – 5,391 tests
  • May 19 – 6,238 tests
  • May 20 – 6,490 tests
  • May 21 – 7,674 tests
  • May 22 – 7,964 tests
  • May 23 – 7,171 tests
  • May 24 – 7,488 tests
  • May 25 – 8,070 tests

Also, note that the first coronavirus case in Colombia was on March 6, 2020 but in the month of February 2020 before the first case, INS conducted 599 tests in Colombia looking for the first case.

Furthermore, the testing count from day-to-day in Colombia is not consistent but the weekly count trend is increasing. See the variation in the number of tests conducted day-to-day in the following 10 days in Colombia:

  • April 1 – 2,390 tests
  • April 2 – 1,159 tests
  • April 3 – 1,340 tests
  • April 4 – 1,237 tests
  • April 5 – 1,558 tests
  • April 6 – 2,421 tests
  • April 7 – 2,760 tests
  • April 8 – 3,130 tests
  • April 9 – 1,335 tests
  • April 10 – 2,433 tests

This inconsistency is reportedly not an issue of lab capacity, equipment or staff in Colombia. According to INS, the variability is more due to the fact that Colombia is forced to import laboratory supplies such as chemical reagents.

So, the number of tests that Colombia can do in a day depends on the availability of laboratory supplies at labs in Colombia including chemical reagents. Reagent shortages has emerged as a key constraint for increasing the rate of testing in Colombia and the rest of the world.

COVID-19 Testing by Department (State) in Colombia

While Colombia has completed 3,607 COVID-19 tests per million people in Colombia, this testing per million varies by department (state) in Colombia. The following graphic shows the COVID-19 testing per million inhabitants for all 33 departments (including the district capital of Bogotá) in Colombia on May 1:

COVID-19 testing per million by department in Colombia, source Instituto Nacional de Salud, 5/1

COVID-19 testing per million by department in Colombia, source Instituto Nacional de Salud, 5/1

There has been testing done in all the departments in Colombia. But a higher percentage of testing than the national average is being done in several departments including Amazonas, Bogotá, Antioquia and Valle de Cauca.

Amazonas is a lowly populated department. So, a smaller number tests results in a high number per million. Medellín is located in Antioquia and Cali is located in Valle de Cauca. And a lower percentage of testing is being done in departments with no coronavirus cases or only a few cases.

Demand for Testing Exceeds Supply Not Just in Colombia

There is currently a global shortage of test kits and chemical reagents for testing for COVID-19. And Colombia must compete with other countries. As a result, there can be testing shortages and extended wait times for test results.

For example, here is an article in Canada about shortages and shortages in Australia and many other countries have reported test kit and chemical reagent shortages.

You need everything from swabs to viral transport medium (VTM) to RNA extractor reagent to run a COVID-19 test.

INS in Colombia reported that an increase in the volume of daily tests of COVID-19 in Colombia was exceeding the installed capacity to be able to analyze and deliver results. As a result, there were stories in the news in Colombia about it taking up to 10 days in Cali to receive test results.

In the case of Medellín, from March 30 to April 6, a total of 1,071 tests had been processed and 634 more were still pending to know the test results. And tests in Bogotá were reportedly being processed within three to four days, as Bogotá has the most testing capacity in Colombia.

However, delays in testing are happening in the U.S. as well, with some labs in the U.S. generally taking days — or even a week or more — to run and report tests.

Colombia Adds More Labs for COVID-19 Testing

The testing rate for COVID-19 should increase in Colombia. On April 9, INS reported it plans to have capacity for 17,000 tests per day in a month. But this goal is questionable, as Colombia in the past week (April 20 to 26) completed less than 25,000 tests in an entire week.

On April 9, INS reported it had 17 labs doing COVID-19 tests with plans to have 20 more labs starting tests in the following week.  In addition, by April 11, the count of labs in Colombia for COVID-19 testing had increased to a total of 23 labs with six new labs added with an additional capacity for 2,378 daily tests for coronavirus:

  1. Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá – 300 daily tests
  2. Universidad del Bosque in Bogotá – 200 daily tests
  3. Compensar in Bogotá in 2 locations – 1,400 daily tests
  4. Colsanitas Laboratorio Molecular Keralty in Bogotá – 370 daily tests
  5. Fundación Santa Fe in Bogotá – 48 daily tests
  6. University of Córdoba in Montería – 60 daily tests

By April 15, INS reported it had 47 labs doing COVID-19 tests with plans to increase this to 70 labs. And by May 25, INS reported it had 59 labs doing COVID-19 tests .

With new labs, Colombia reportedly now has the lab capacity for over 12,000 COVID-19 tests daily. But this depends on having sufficient lab supplies including chemical reagents. But the most tests Colombia has done in one day so far was on May 26 – 8,070 tests.

Even with New Labs, Colombia May Have a Testing Capacity Issue

Even with over 50 labs doing COVID-19 testing distributed throughout Colombia, there appears to be an issue with testing capacity in some cities in Colombia.

INS, claims the variability in tests per day in Colombia is due to the fact that Colombia is forced to import laboratory supplies such as chemical reagents. However, we believe Colombia also has a testing capacity issue in some cities.

For example, in Medellín, from March 30 to April 6, a total of 1,071 tests were processed and 634 tests were still pending to know the test results. So, in a period of a week, Medellín averaged only 153 tests per day. But Medellín still had a backlog of 634 tests due to insufficient capacity.

Also, we believe that Cali has a COVID-19 testing capacity issue, as news reports in April indicated that tests in Cali were taking up to 10 days.

The bottom line is if some cities have insufficient testing capacity, overflow should be sent to Bogotá, which has the most testing capacity in Colombia with labs that can perform well over 4,000 COVID-19 tests per day.

COVID-19 Testing Types

There are two main testing methods for COVID-19: RT-PCR and rapid tests.

The first type of test, RT-PCR is a molecular test that is considered the gold standard and is used by Colombia. PT-PCR stands for reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction test, which tries to find genetic sequences of the virus by deploying primers – chemicals or reagents which are added to test if a reaction occurs – that attach to the targeted genetic sequences.

The PCR test is performed with throat or nasal swabs and is only reliable in the first week of the disease. Later, the virus can disappear in the throat while it continues to multiply in the lungs.

For infected people tested in the second week, sample material can be taken from the deep airways by suction catheter or coughing up material (sputum) can be used.

However, PCR tests are far more complex to develop and manufacture with an acute global shortage of quality testing equipment and reagents. Also, PCR tests must be done in a lab and most PCR tests can take a few hours to a few days. The RT-PCR test is the only type of test used in Colombia for reported COVID-19 testing statistics.

But new rapid molecular diagnostic tests for COVID-19 can provide results in less than an hour. For example, Abbott’s new ID Now can deliver results in minutes using a small machine that can be used at a point-of-care and doesn’t require a lab.

The other type of test is a rapid serological test that relies on detecting antibodies in a blood sample, usually obtained through a simple finger prick. These tests do not require special equipment to process the results, which allows them to be used at point-of-care.

When you’re exposed to COVID-19, your body develops antibodies, which can take several days to over a week. Serological tests are much faster than standard molecular tests, returning results in as few as 10-15 minutes.

However, since it can take several days for the body to develop an antibody response to the virus, serological tests may not be reliable in identifying a current infection. Serological tests have the potential of producing a false negative, a false result when you actually have the infection.

Colombia’s Rapid COVID-19 Tests

The first batch of 47,500 rapid tests for the diagnosis of COVID-19 arrived in early April in the country, as reported by the Minister of Health and Social Protection, Fernando Ruiz Gómez.

These tests, which are the first of several batches, are planned to be used at be at a point-of-care in offices or clinics to diagnose people.

In the event that a rapid antibody detection test is positive, it must be confirmed with RT-PCR test.

On March 25 the Health Ministry in Colombia announced that it plans to increase testing capability to at least 350,000 rapid tests per week. This will enable detecting more cases to ensure those who are infected are isolated so they don’t infect more people.

But that 350,000 per week goal is questionable even thought Colombia will be receiving over 1 million rapid tests.

Abbott Laboratories in the U.S. is sending over 1 million COVID-19 rapid tests to Colombia in April. Also, reportedly 50,000 COVID-19 rapid tests were received in Colombia from South Korea on April 6 and another 10,000 COVID-19 rapid tests were received from the UAE on April 8.

However, Colombia has been testing the Basepoint rapid test, from the Abbott laboratories. And has found after a sampling of 311 analysis that if the rapid test is used in patients with a symptom time of less than 11 days, there is a risk that the result is a “false negative”, despite the fact that patients are sick.

So, the bottom line is these rapid COVID-19 tests do not really confirm diagnosis but are complementary to the RT-PCR test and can be used in epidemiological surveillance.

Number to Call in Medellín if You Think You Have Coronavirus

Medellín uses the 123 emergency phone number for coronavirus reports.

People who in the last two weeks have been in countries where the virus circulates, and who have symptoms such as cough, fever, nasal congestion and muscle fatigue, or who have been in contact with patients who meet with the above criteria can call this emergency number.

Medellín asks residents to make responsible use of this single line of emergencies, and also recommends consulting EPS health insurance websites.

Medellin Guru’s Coronavirus Series

Medellin Guru has a series of articles about the coronavirus pandemic and the impacts in Colombia: Also, these articles are being kept up-to-date, as this is a fast-moving topic:

The Bottom Line: COVID-19 Testing in Colombia – Reality About Coronavirus Testing

Colombia is increasing its capacity for COVID-19 testing but will be challenged with a global shortage of testing kits and chemical reagents.

Many foreigners have wondered why Colombia can’t increase COVID-19 testing faster. There are obvious limits in terms of laboratories, lab professionals, equipment and health care staff to administer tests.

More limiting growth of testing is a global shortage of testing kits and chemical reagents to contend with. China is ramping up COVID-19 testing exports but can’t keep up with global demand.

Lack of tests is one reason that over one-third of the world has implemented quarantines and lockdowns.

Ideally, testing could be used to check not only everyone who has symptoms but also their close contacts, so they could be identified as infected, isolated or quarantined as well.

We have a popular article about Coronavirus in Colombia that is updated daily including the count of coronavirus tests done in Colombia. So, we will continue to watch to see how effective Colombia is in its COVID-19 testing and see how quickly the count of tests in Colombia increases.

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Editors note: updated on May 11, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 12, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 13, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article plus added information that Colombia now has 55 labs doing COVID-19 tests.

Editors note: updated on May 14, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 15, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 16, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 17, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 18, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 19, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 20, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 21, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 22, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 23, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

Editors note: updated on May 24, 2020 with current COVID-19 testing numbers in Colombia and updated table in article.

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