Coronavirus pandemic: All you need to know about where India stands on testing of virus, and what lies ahead
India has conducted only 9,100 tests for coronavirus as of 16 March, which is less than the daily tests South Korea is doing currently.
The Indian Council of Medical Research on Tuesday issued fresh guidelines, allowing private hospitals to conduct testing for the novel coronavirus. This is a big change from the conservative approach which continues to dictate India's strategy against COVID-19, and was mentioned once again by the Ministry of Health at its press conference on Tuesday — test only those who show flu-like symptoms and have a travel history to the virus-affected countries.
So, what changed?
The decision was announced as reports stated a backlog in 71 government-approved testing centres, which were till Monday the only facilities approved to collect samples and conduct testing for the novel coronavirus.
However, according to Hindustan Times, India has tested only 9,100 samples till 16 March. In comparison, as per ourworldindata.org, China had tested 3,20,000 (till 24 February), South Korea had tested 2,48,647 samples (till 13 March) and the US had tested over 21,500 samples (CDC and COVID-Tracking Project) till 12 March.
The number of tests as of 16 March is likely to be higher for these countries.
What this means is, India has "only managed to test 6.8 samples for every million people living in the country", placing the country among the lowest in the world in terms of people tested with respect to population.
Why are India's numbers so low?
There are many reasons for that. Firstly, unlike South Korea, or other countries, which are following a mass testing approach, India's strategy against the novel coronavirus has been one where the ICMR is testing random individuals exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus and with history of travel to the virus-affected countries, says The Economic Times. If the person tests positive, the testing is then expanded to those who have come in close contact with the patient.
There have been several cases where people tested positive without exhibiting any symptoms of the virus. So, only time will tell if this approach has worked for India or not.
Why not increase the number of tests? The answer to this question also takes us to the second reason why testing has been so low in India, and that is, India doesn't have enough testing kits.
"Test kits to diagnose coronavirus cases are not being manufactured in India currently and obtaining kits from abroad has been a challenge because of the airlines being in lockdown and travel bans imposed by the government for several nations," Thyrocare Technologies Limited, a chain of diagnostic and preventive care laboratories, told CNBC-TV18.
Coronavirus testing is currently of two types: blood-based and swab-based, it added.
On Tuesday, the ICMR listed two types of assays or procedures to diagnose coronavirus. The cost of the first screening assay is Rs 1,500 whereas that of the additional confirmatory assay is Rs 3,000, the ICMR said in a release.
The ICMR also said that existing systems in India can test 1,400 samples per day. Unfortunately, this is very low as compared to South Korea, which on average, has been testing nearly 12,000 patients every day. To add context, South Korea's daily testing rate is higher than India’s total tests.
The current lockdown and restrictions on travel have also made it difficult to import testing kits. According to reports, India has just 3,00,000 testing kits.
The big question then is: even after allowing private labs to conduct tests for coronavirus, how is the govt planning to fill the shortage of testing kits?
A Chennai-based firm may have the answer to the question. According to another News18 report, a Chennai-based firm, Trivitron Healthcare Group, has reportedly become the first Indian manufacturer to have developed a testing kit for the virus.
The testing kit is expected to enter the market in another 2-3 weeks as they would have to first undergo testing at a government-approved facility, the report added.
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