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The result is a nation navigating in the dark, experts said, without the ability to trace and contain transmission, let alone track the spread of dangerous new virus variants in real time.

Brazil’s public health system and major private laboratories conducted about 44,000 daily PCR tests – the gold standard for identifying the novel coronavirus – in the last week of February, the latest public health ministry data show.

That was down by nearly a third from Brazil’s peak for testing: more than 65,000 per day in the third week of December.

By comparison, the United States – the only nation with more total Covid-19 deaths – has averaged over a million tests per day in the last nine months.

Brazil’s health ministry did not answer questions about the decline in testing. Recent ministry notes cited investments to increase testing capacity.

“There’s no justification,” said Diego Xavier, a public health researcher for the Fiocruz biomedical institute. “We’ve processed more tests before. So the only explanation is a reduction in the testing program at a time when we should be increasing it.”

One in three tests in Brazil were positive in late February, ministry data show, far above the benchmark 5% positivity rate cited by the World Health Organization for countries containing their outbreaks.

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