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Anal swabs to become China’s No. 2 method for COVID-19 testing

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Chinese citizens are clenching up at an invasive new form of COVID-19 testing in the country: anal swabs.

State-controlled media has floated the notion of anal swabbing for “high risk groups” in recent days, citing claims by Li Tongzeng, a deputy director in charge of infectious disease at Beijing You’an Hospital. Some tests have already been conducted, and more are expected as the country moves into its busy Lunar New Year season.

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Li says anal coronavirus tests are useful for cutting down on false negative results among high-risk patients, because the virus can linger in the intestinal tract for days after it’s cleared out of the respiratory system.

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“If we add anal swab testing, it can raise our rate of identifying infected patients,” he said on CCTV Sunday. “But of course considering that collecting anal swabs is not as convenient as throat swabs, at the moment only key groups such as those in quarantine receive both.”

In other words, citizens won’t be required to drop their pants at test centres across the country, where throat swabs will remain the testing method of choice.

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Many citizens tightened up at the idea of an anal pandemic probe, with some turning to social media to express their outrage.

“Low harm, but extreme humiliation,” one user said on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service, according to the AFP.

“Everyone involved will be so embarrassed,” another user wrote, according to the Washington Post.

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Some also jokingly expressed fears that a tester might mix up the swabs.

“I’ve done two anal swabs, every time I did one I had to do a throat swab afterwards — I was so scared the nurse would forget to use a new swab,” one person wrote.

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Dr. Yang Zhanqiu of Wuhan University says nasal and throat swabs are still the best methods for detecting COVID-19, since the virus is contracted through the upper respiratory tract.

“There have been cases concerning the coronavirus testing positive in a patient’s excrement, but no evidence has suggested it had been transmitted through one’s digestive system,” Yang told the state-run Global Times.

Anal swabs have not been widely adopted in other nations to date, but public health agencies in many countries, including Canada, have been testing sewage to get a general sense of the virus’ presence in local populations.

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China’s National Health Commission has been investigating anal swab tests since early last year, and has already used the tests on some people.

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A paper published by Chinese researchers in August suggests that anal swabs might be the “potentially optimal specimen” for testing recovered patients before releasing them from hospital.

Alex Wang, 21, told Vice News that he received an anal swab test last September, and compared the feeling to having diarrhea.

“At first I was shy,” he told the publication. “But I understood the country was under pressure to prevent outbreaks.”

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Chinese health officials are calling for more intense testing ahead of the Lunar New Year season, when travel spikes between late January and March 8. Approximately 1.7 billion passenger trips are expected during the 40-day travel rush, according to government estimates. That’s 40 per cent lower than the pre-pandemic numbers, but 10 per cent higher than last year’s festival, which was also impeded by the virus.

China has used intense lockdowns and mandatory testing strategies to curb the spread of the virus, which first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019. Wuhan itself has largely beaten back the virus and returned to normal, but other parts of China are facing sharp restrictions amid localized outbreaks.

The country has also tightened travel rules and restricted international arrivals to prevent new infections.

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No plans have been announced for anal testing international visitors.

At least, not yet.