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Cambodia COVID cases plummet after PM orders reduced testing

Hun Sen tells officials there's no need to rapid test people without symptoms

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks via video to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's official daily COVID-19 case numbers tumbled 76% in one day after Prime Minister Hun Sen told officials to stop administering rapid tests to people who don't show symptoms.

The country's Ministry of Health reported 232 cases on Friday, down from 978 the previous day. Friday's numbers specified they were detected via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, suggesting that positive cases from rapid antigen tests were not counted.

Cambodia's caseload had been steadily rising in recent weeks despite the country nearing its vaccination campaign targets.

The dramatic fall in cases came after audio emerged of Hun Sen instructing high-ranking officials to only test people who exhibit symptoms. Local news outlet VOD verified the instructions with three government officials.

In the audio, obtained by Nikkei Asia, Hun Sen complains that authorities were needlessly going into the community and finding asymptomatic carriers. He instructed his subordinates to stop proactive testing and, instead, set up sites where people experiencing symptoms could get tested.

"In the provinces please stop finding [COVID] with rapid tests in the villages, in the communes and other places," he said in the recording, reportedly from late Wednesday. "But we will conduct rapid tests when they present themselves at the fixed place."

Hun Sen pointed to complaints that the rapid tests were uncomfortable and noted his own experience of regular swabs. "Even my nose is almost ruined," he said.

He added that the new approach would help the country reopen, saying: "We don't need to do this like before, now is the time we have to learn to live with COVID."

Cambodia reported less than 500 cases and no virus-linked deaths during the first year of the pandemic. A super-spreader event at a nightclub in February seeded an outbreak that, combined with the introduction of the highly transmissible Delta variant in recent months, is now responsible for more than 100,000 cases and 2,319 deaths.

The country has been praised for a fast vaccine rollout. Using mainly shots from China, it has delivered one dose to more than 80% of its population of 16 million and is in the process of inoculating children. It has administered a booster shot to some 875,000 people.

For the first time, Hun Sen provided a rough breakdown of fatal cases who were vaccinated, saying two-thirds of deaths had been people who had not had a shot.

"I would request please don't forward this [message] to other people," he said of his instructions to subordinates.

Following the issuance of what Hun Sen called "a new path," provincial cities and towns including Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, and Preah Vihear dropped emergency measures in areas that had been designated as "red zones" because of a high rate of COVID-19 spread.

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