By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary notched up two COVID-19 milestones on Wednesday when its total number of infections exceeded 40,000 and deaths rose above 1,000, official data showed, as scientists warned insufficient testing meant steeper increases and a possible lockdown loomed.
Hungary weathered Europe's first COVID-19 wave in the spring fairly well thanks to a tough lockdown but, like neighbouring countries such as the Czech Republic, has seen a sharp rise in cases over the past month as Budapest resists calls for more onerous restrictions that would deepen an economic downturn.
Unlike the Czechs, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said Hungary must avoid another national lockdown. After a 13.6% annual fall in second-quarter economic output, the government has said it expects a 5-7% contraction this year.
Wednesday's data showed Hungary, a country of 10 million, has now recorded 40,782 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,023 deaths.
"Nobody knows how many cases there really are," said epidemiologist Andras Csilek, who advises the Hungarian Medical Chamber. "Our health care system is unable to process more tests."
For weeks Hungary has tested about 10,000 people per day, a threshold it cannot surpass due to a lack of more technology, medical supplies and human resources, Csilek told Reuters.
"I have seen internal communications about manually testing samples at one university clinic," Csilek said. "That is like trying to fill beer bottles manually at an assembly line. It is a horrible workload."
Csilek said frontline workers including doctors and teachers should be prioritised for testing.
Asked about the issue, a government spokesman said: "We test as much as experts think is appropriate." He did not elaborate.
A failure to test more could eventually lead to another lockdown, said Beatrix Oroszi, an expert at the National Public Health Centre.
"We think the spread has not slowed much, nor has it reached a plateau," Oroszi told news web site Portfolio.hu on Tuesday.
"If we test and do contact research well, we can turn this around. If not, restrictive measures and a lockdown will sooner or later become inevitable."
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)