MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico is winning the battle against the coronavirus and has enough spare capacity to see off the peak of the pandemic this week, but the number of deaths linked to the disease is likely higher than official data reflects, a top health official said.
Deputy health minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell, who has spearheaded Mexico's response to the outbreak, told Reuters the country was containing the virus even as he cautioned that a second wave of seasonal illness could strike in October.
"We're winning," Lopez-Gatell said in an interview on Monday night at the National Palace, the seat of the federal government in the historic center of Mexico City. "The numbers are encouraging. We still have a very broad response capacity."
Since closing schools and ramping up social distancing in late March, Mexico has urged its 126 million inhabitants to stay at home and ordered the suspension of non-essential business activities.
The measures enabled Mexico to "change the course of the epidemic and have very positive effects, leading to a reduction of transmission speed and infections," Lopez-Gatell said.
Mexico had by Monday night officially registered some 25,000 cases of coronavirus and almost 2,300 deaths, although the health ministry has repeatedly said the true number of infections is probably several times that.
Deaths are also likely higher, Lopez-Gatell said.
"(The number of deaths is underestimated) with influenza every year, so it would be no different in the case of an emerging disease like COVID-19," he noted, referring to the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Still, the official, who has provided Mexico with daily updates on the pandemic, said coronavirus cases in the Valley of Mexico, an area encompassing the capital that is home to around one in six of the population, were "well below" the 10,000 that authorities had forecast, and could end up at half that number.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to begin reopening the economy in some areas by May 17 and across the country on June 1. On Monday, Lopez Obrador said he saw "light at the end of the tunnel" in Mexico's struggle with the deadly virus.
Still, Lopez-Gatell said no decision had been made on when to restart the auto industry, whose supply chains are highly integrated with the rest of North America.
That interdependence has led to lobbying by U.S. business leaders and politicians for Mexico to synchronize the restart with the rest of the continent.
There was no guarantee that Mexico, which registered its first cases of coronavirus after the United States, would re-open its economy first, Lopez-Gatell said.
"Mexico entered the COVID-19 epidemic a month after the United States," he said. "If at a given moment the United States is already in a stabilization phase of its epidemic, Mexico will barely be starting."
The government has said it expects the outbreak to peak in Mexico between May 6-8.
Mexico has done the fewest tests per capita to detect the coronavirus among the nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), or just 0.4 test per 1,000 inhabitants, against an OECD average of 22.9.
However, tests are not imperative for a sound policy, Lopez-Gatell said.
"You don't need the number of cases. What you need is to understand the data and understand what the mechanics of an epidemic are to make the most appropriate decisions," he said.
"Some people say: 'We're blind, we don't have information.' The blind one is the one who wants to go blind," he said. "We have sufficient information to make decisions."
Lopez-Gatell cautioned against overconfidence given that the pandemic had spread all over the planet.
"It's not logical to think that while there's an epidemic of infectious disease in the rest of the world, each country will be safe from re-infection," he said.
"(Seasonal) flu will come back in October and it'll leave in March," he said. "What we don't know - and it's likely - is if the second big wave of COVID-19 could come with influenza."
(Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Dan Grebler)
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