OPINION – Cotton swab empire

I found myself thinking about millions of cotton swabs when I recently saw a report that the Chinese central government has asked local authorities to further lower the price of Covid-19 nucleic acid tests to no more than RMB16 (US$2.4) per person for a single test.

It seems a reasonable price – considering nucleic acid testing can go for 100 to 120 euros in some countries in Europe – but it does become an impressive tally when you consider the gigantic number of people covered.

If one was to test the entire 1.4 billion population of China in one go, at this pricing per test we’re talking about some US$3.5 billion in tests.

There’s also of course batch testing, which combines samples from up to 10 people in a single test, which can be reduced to about RMB5 per person but let’s consider only individual testing for argument’s sake.

Let’s just consider the number of mass testing rounds that have been carried out nationwide, multiple times over since 2020.

We are talking after all about one of the most heavily tested populations the world over, with the new normal requiring a positive test, sometimes valid only for 48 hours, for almost everything from taking a train to entering a wet market.

Chinese noses – and throats – are probably the cleanest in the world, the incessant scrubbing with cue tips assuring nostrils are sparkle clean.

Even at the Macau scale, it is a considerable amount of money, expenses that have sometimes been covered by health authorities – in cases of mandatory mass testing – but many times be citizens as a requirement to attend events or cross the border.

Testing in Macau regularly goes for MOP70 (US$8.6) but can go up to MOP500 for those needing an urgent result in about six hours, maybe for an international flight.

Taking into consideration the 658,000 in the latest population data, some MOP46 million per mass testing, so about US$5.6 million.

So who is profiting from this swab frenzy?

In the early stages, most testing was commissioned to Kuok Kim (Macau) Hygiene Examination Company is a health care services subsidiary directly under China Certification & Inspection Group Macau Co. Ltd, a health institution approved by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and directly managed by the Chinese National Certification Accreditation Administration.

The China Certification & Inspection Group (CCIC) describes itself as the largest inspection and certification body in China, with approximately 300 offices, 200 cooperative labs and over 16,000 employees.

First tests were at one point free for residents, then established at MOP180, reduced to MOP120 and again reduced to MOP70 after negotiations with the company and as other private entities joined the game.

Privately-owned Kiang Wu Hospital and the Macau University of Science and Technology Hospitaalso started providing nucleic acid testing services, with even local resorts setting up testing stations upon their premises, allowing gamblers to make sure they have the most important personal green health code to go destroy the health of their personal finances.

The free market is what it is, and the pandemic has generated a whole new front of essential medical supply markets, from vaccines to health masks, and someone would of course profit from it, but when something becomes so ubiquitous and required as nucleic acid testing in this corner of the world it is important to get to know where all that swab money goes, even if heavily subsidised by authorities.

NAT testing is thankfully way cheaper here than in most regions of the world but it is rarely requested with the frequency it is around here too.

Residents who live on the other side of the border have already lost count of the number of tests carried out for the last three years to either visit their family, attend a school or their employment, with testing validity sometimes as low as 12 hours.

Even those entering the city and forced to complete the still arduous 14-day quarantine have now to pay the multiple testing during their observation hotel stay out of their own pocket.

Maybe as we used to talk about the oil and dotcom magnate dynasties we will be in the future discussing the acid testing tycoons who rose after the novel coronavirus or the empire that swabs built.

If only I had been smart enough to invest in those cotton swab stocks I was introduced to circa 2015…

[MNA Editor-in-Chief]