We are Appealing to Pvt Labs to Provide Free COVID-19 Tests: ICMR
While not confirmed, will the ICMR’s statement pressure private players to provide free testing?
As of Tuesday, 17 March, India is facing 137 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 3 deaths and 13 recoveries.
In a press briefing today, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said that they were planning to increase capacities and encouraging private laboratories accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) to set up facilities to test for the novel coronavirus.
“We were approached by private players who want to help out so we encouraged them to get involved. We are appealing to them to provide free testing for COVID-19.”Dr Balram Bhargava, ICMR D-G
Dr Bhargava added that this is not a promise, although they are urging private labs to provide the test at an affordable rate. He added that a few did say they would provide free testing but nothing is confirmed as of now.
“There is nothing mandatory, India is a democracy, we can only advise and appeal,” said Dr Bhargava, although one hopes that their bold statement will pressurise private players to focus on affordable care to help contain COVID-19.
Dr Gupta adds that biosafety and biosecurity precautions should be taken by private labs otherwise the risk of spread of infection increases. Testing n private labs, therefore, must only be prescribed after the doctors follow ICMR guidelines.
ICMR will share the standard operating procedure. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare adds that private labs should procure all the requisite equipment like probes and primers before taking on testing and that they should ensure immediate real-time reporting to the ministry.
Commercial testing kits can also be purchased after they have been vetted by ICMR and NIV.
Dr Bhargava added that ICMR has already requested the World Health Organization for 1 million probes, and they should be reaching India shortly.
Testing Facilities Scaled Up: ICMR
With scaled -up operations in a week, there are now 72 ICMR testing labs and another 49 government labs that make a total of 121 testing facilities equipped to test for the COVID-19 pandemic in India. The 49 labs are under organisations like Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), and Defence Research, Development Organisation (DRDO).
ICMR is also in working towards setting up two testing locations (in NCR and Bhubaneswar) to rapidly increase the diagnosing of COVID-19. These systems will be able to test up to 1400 samples in a day.
“Currently, 90 samples per lab per day are being testing,” says ICMR’s Dr Nivedita Gupta. She adds that this capacity “can be doubled to 180 per day per lab if the demand occurs.”
As of Monday, 16 March, ICMR has tested 11,500 samples across the country.
They are currently focusing on only 3 types of cases:
- Asymptomatic people who have travelled internationally in the last 14 days. They must stay in home quarantine for 14 days and if they show symptoms like fever, cough and difficulty in breathing they must contact the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare helpline for testing.
- All contacts of laboratory-confirmed cases. These must also stay in home quarantine for 14 days and come in for a test f they show symptoms.
- Health care workers managing respiratory distress / Severe Acute Respiratory Illness should be tested when they are symptomatic.
Community Transmission Not Priority: ICMR
What about community transmission? In other countries, people without symptoms are seen to be transferring the virus but the ICMR says that they don’t have the evidence to suggest that asymptotic people are spreading the virus in India as yet.
ICMR said they prioritised one effort (that is testing symptomatic patients only) to contain the virus in stage 2.
“We at ICMR are regularly monitoring for community transmissions. Our labs are looking at random samples of patients who suffer from influenza like illnesses/ Severe AcuteRespiratory Illness for presence of the COVID-19. So far, these results are negative thus implying that India has not reached the stage for community transmissions”Prof (Dr) Balram Bhargava, Secretary, Department of Health Research & Director General, ICMR
“For stay stage 3, we are continuing surveillance. We are trying to curb international travel, delicately balancing between panic and the correct management,” says Dr Bhargava.
“We are happy with the restrictions that the government has invoked currently.”Dr Balram Bhargava, ICMR D-G
A virus like this needs a graded response says the ICMR, adding that so far, in Stage 2 which is local transmission, India is responding well.
“It is too early to say that India has contained the virus. We are hoping not to reach the community transmission stage but this cannot be predicted. It depends on how strongly we close our international borders, this should help prevent it,” says ICMR.
The ICMR’s objectives are three-fold
- Scale up testing facilities
- Optimise resources
- Avoid indiscriminate testing,
For now, the ICMR said that it was focussing on curbing the current problem although not much was said on how the potential of community transmission could be curbed. Avoidance seemed to be the strategy.
Still, one hopes the ICMR has a way to deal with the problem of community transmission outside of avoidance and social distancing - before the problem arises.
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