A move by health authorities in Beijing to include anal swabs in the city’s arsenal of COVID-19 testing options has sparked an outcry on China’s tightly controlled internet.
Testing stations have begun using anal swabs to test people considered to be at high risk of having COVID-19, according to a report by state broadcaster CCTV, because the technique can better detect the presence of the virus.
It quoted You’an Hospital senior doctor Li Tongzeng as saying that the test was more sensitive than throat and nasal swabs, and was better at detecting people infected with COVID-19.
“Some asymptomatic patients recover quickly, meaning that there could be no trace left of the virus in their throat after three or five days,” Li was quoted as saying.
“But we found that the virus lingers longer in samples taken from the patient’s digestive tract and stool … so using anal swabs would increase detection rates … and lower the risk of misdiagnosis,” he said.
The move follows mass compulsory testing at a Beijing school — including nasal, oral and anal swabs — after a student was confirmed as an asymptomatic case.
Health officials locked down several residential compounds in Beijing’s Daxing district last week, and citywide testing is currently under way.
“There are still a lot of restrictions in Daxing, and across the whole of Beijing,” an employee who answered the phone recently at the Shunyi district epidemic control center in Beijing told RFA. “You have to get your temperature taken and scan your health code to go anywhere.”
‘An easy way to detect the virus’
Beijing pharmacist Pang Xinhua said the virus is particularly easy to detect in stool samples, and frequently affects the digestive tract.
“Patients with COVID-19 can have symptoms such as diarrhea,” Pang told RFA. “It’s an easy way to detect the virus.”
“Testing from the oral mucosa and nostrils doesn’t always work properly,” he said.
Diagrams and video clips of patients presenting for anal swabs went viral on social media on Wednesday, with netizens cringeing at the idea, and some saying they would cancel plans to travel back to the city ahead of Lunar New Year on Feb. 12 to avoid what is widely seen as a humiliating procedure.
According to one video, the swab must be inserted about an inch into the rectum and rotated several times, with the whole procedure taking about 10 seconds.
“Low risk of harm; high risk of humiliation,” one user quipped on the Weibo social media platform.
Another commented: “After seeing the official propaganda pictures, I have dropped the idea of going home for the New Year.”
Hebei-based academic Wang Wenguang said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is likely concerned by the proximity of Daxing district to its government headquarters at Zhongnanhai.
“This could affect what they call overall stability, something that the CCP considers hugely important,” Wang said, referring to a fear that a COVID-19 outbreak among China’s leaders could affect the stability of the regime.
“They’re not too concerned about how many people actually catch this disease.”
CCTV said in its report on Sunday that anal swabs wouldn’t be used as widely as other testing methods, as they weren’t “convenient.”
Amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases — particularly in northern China — many regions have clamped down on arrivals from medium- and high-risk areas of the country, with Beijing announcing a ban on such travelers to the city ahead of the New Year rush.
Anyone arriving in China from overseas must currently undergo a 14-day quarantine period at a designated hotel, as well as multiple COVID-19 tests. It was unclear whether such tests would include anal swabs, however.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.