Latin America has been one of the worst-hit regions from the Covid-19 pandemic, globally. Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru have reported major outbreaks. However, Uruguay stands out as having successfully kept the spread of the virus contained. Despite a recent increase in new daily cases over the past month, Uruguay has consistently kept its positive test rate under 2% since June. Uruguay’s smaller overall population and low population density influenced the slower spread of the virus; however, one of the most important factors was swift and efficient testing. Taking a closer look at how Uruguay managed the Covid-19 pandemic could provide insight into how other Latin American countries can replicate these results and reopen their economy safely.

To date, Uruguay has recorded a total of 10,893 confirmed cases and 102 deaths due to Covid-19. The first cases of Covid-19 were reported in mid-March and soon after the government shut down all public events, bars, churches, and shopping centres to limit the spread of the virus. Contagion hot spots were identified along the border with Brazil and Argentina and travel between the countries was suspended. These initial measures, and Uruguay’s smaller population, meant the increase in new daily cases was much slower than that observed in Brazil and Argentina. It allowed healthcare providers and health services to prepare for the eventual increase in cases. It also meant scientists and public health officials had more time to trace outbreaks while they were still localised and contain them. Additionally, the fast shutdown of high-risk activities and travel allowed the government and public health officials to plan, coordinate, and implement Covid-19 testing strategies.

Aside from gaining time by limiting super-spreader events and travel to high-risk areas, Uruguay invested in research to develop a nationally manufactured testing kit. Latin America generally relies on medical supplies and equipment from foreign countries. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, much of this supply chain suffered from a bottleneck where high demand and a lag in ramping up production for tests and other medical equipment left several countries with little capability for testing. Uruguay’s development of a national test meant the country didn’t have to wait long to begin testing its population; this also increased its diagnostic capabilities. According to GlobalData’s figures, the testing rate increased from 6.6 tests per thousand population on 30 April to over 14.0 tests per thousand population at the end of May. As of 9 December, the test rate is over 160.0 tests per thousand population. The increase in test rates correlated to a decrease in the positive test rate from approximately 8.0% in early April to below 2.0% by June 1 (Figure 1). This is likely because the more tests that were carried out, the faster cases were identified and isolated, leading to a break in the chain of transmission. Once test positive rates were at approximately 1.0%, the strategy for testing shifted from individual testing to matrix pooling, a system that allows many samples to be tested at once, thereby reducing the number of tests and reagents needed. The current low positive test rate indicates that there is little community transmission of the virus and that current levels of testing should be maintained.

Overall, the introduction of a nationally manufactured testing kit and social distancing measures in Uruguay have proven effective at initially curbing the spread of infection. However, with new daily cases beginning to rise again, maintaining current testing rates nationwide will be crucial in keeping schools and the economy open, safely. Based on Uruguay’s initial response to the virus, it seems like ongoing pool testing, efficient contact tracing, and limiting exposure to the virus from travel or crowded public spaces will continue to be feasible measures that can keep Covid-19 under control.

Figure 1: Uruguay, Test Rate (Tests per 1,000 Population) and Positive Test Rate (%) for Covid-19, 24 March –10 December 2020.

Source: GlobalData Pharma Intelligence Center.