Coronavirus: Does New Zealand really top the world in COVID-19 testing?

New Zealand's efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have been praised worldwide.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who has become something of a folk hero over the past two months, says that's was partly down to everyday New Zealanders doing their "bit" during the lockdown, which mostly ended on Thursday. 

But he also credited the response from health officials, including a rapid rise in testing capability. The more sick and potentially exposed people that can be tested promptly, the easier it is to isolate those who might be at risk of spreading the deadly disease to others.

"We are looking very hard for new cases all the time, and we've got really good testing capacity. I've just seen a new graph showing that New Zealand has done the most tests per case we've identified of any country, with Taiwan in behind us."

But is that true? Newshub looked into the international data, and found it's unlikely. 

The graph Dr Bloomfield was likely referring to is this one, from Our World in Data, a non-profit group which collates facts and figures from around the world and makes them freely available to use. 

Our World in Data graph showing NZ doing well in testing.
Our World in Data graph showing NZ doing well in testing. Photo credit: Our World in Data

The graph, which uses data supplied by health agencies from around the world, has been making the rounds on social media lately. It shows as of May 12, New Zealand had conducted about 172 tests per confirmed case of COVID-19. As Dr Bloomfield noted, Taiwan is in second with 154 tests per confirmed case.

Australia is third, with 126, and after that it's a long way back to South Korea (62.3), the Czech Republic (38.7) and Estonia (37.4). South Africa, Tunisia, Iceland and India round out the top 10. 

But there are two problems with the graph - firstly, when you load up the page not every country's figures are represented. Once you've added all the countries for which data is available, New Zealand slips into third place behind the African nations of Uganda and Zimbabwe.

COVID-19 might have started in China, but it really took hold in wealthier nations in Europe like the UK, Spain, France and Italy, as well as the US in North America. It's yet to get a major foothold in Africa, but with Lesotho reporting its first case overnight, it now has a presence in every country on the relatively poor continent. Uganda has only reported 139 cases and no deaths so far, and Zimbabwe 37 cases and four deaths. 

Other nations in the revised top 10 for tests-per-case  include Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nepal.

The other problem is Vietnam. The southeast Asian nation shares a border with China, but acted fast to prevent an outbreak, and as a result has recorded only 288 cases and no deaths

On May 9, Our World in Data had Vietnam way out in front for tests per confirmed case of COVID-19 - 966, compared to second-placed Uganda's 572 and far ahead of New Zealand's 166. But from May 10, Vietnam has been absent from the graph.

Its data was last updated on April 29, so it could be that Our World in Data considers it too old for inclusion. Experts have previously said even though it's a repressive one-party state, they had no reason to doubt Vietnam's impressive figures

Newshub has contacted Our World in Data to find out why Vietnam's figures are absent from its latest reporting. 

According to the Ministry of Health, officials here have tested 173,671 people with a positive rate of 0.7 percent. New Zealand currently ranks 11th for tests per 1000 people in the last three days, according to Our World in Data, and 13th for per capita testing over the duration of the pandemic.