JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's health minister defended the country's screening process for coronavirus on Thursday and said the absence of confirmed cases in the world's fourth-most populous nation was a "blessing from the Almighty".
The sprawling Southeast Asian country of more than 260 million people has not recorded any cases though some of its citizens overseas have contracted the virus, including eight crew on the Diamond Princess cruise liner off Japan's Yokohama.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto said 134 test samples taken from people suspected of having the coronavirus had turned out negative.
"If until this second all came out negative, then it's a blessing from the Almighty," he told reporters.
Putranto said tests on two patients who died this week after suffering symptoms associated with contracting the virus had been negative.
On Feb. 23, a Singaporean man died after reportedly suffering fever and shortness of breath in the city of Batam, but the head of the local health agency said this was due to another unspecified disease.
The death of a 37-year-old man in Semarang in Central Java who was suffering pneumonia after returning from overseas was not caused by the coronavirus, but by H1N1 flu, he said.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the United States, said in a study this month that Indonesia should strengthen outbreak surveillance and control - especially as it had direct flights from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
The Harvard team said Indonesia's lack of confirmed cases "may suggest the potential for undetected cases" as air travel may contribute to cases being exported from China.
WHO IS "QUITE CONFIDENT"
Indonesia has barred entry to visitors who have been in China for 14 days and stopped all flights to and from there.
Indonesia has tested relatively few people in comparison to some neighbours and its population, but Putranto said tests were conducted when "doctors determine they have symptoms that point to that direction."
"Imagine if everybody who had a cough or flu was checked, then millions would be checked," he said.
Navaratnasamy Paranietharan, the World Health Organisation's Indonesia representative, has said the WHO was "quite confident that Indonesia is ready to be able to respond to this situation."
Separately, Indonesia will send a Garuda Indonesia plane in the next few days to Japan to pick up 68 of its citizens working aboard the coronavirus-affected Diamond Princess, officials said.
The crew could be quarantined for up to 28 days on Sebaru island in the Java Sea north off Jakarta, where 188 crew members from another cruise ship are also being held in quarantine.
The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally and killed nearly 2,800, the majority in China.
(Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto and Maikel Jefriando; Editing by Ed Davies and Timothy Heritage)