PATNA: India has suspended the use of Chinese-supplied rapid testing kits for detecting the deadly coronavirus disease (COVID-19) after several states complained results were inaccurate.
The move marks a major setback for Indian government efforts to expand the country’s screening capacity for the killer virus, as the number of recorded cases on Wednesday swept past the 20,000 mark.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the nation’s top biomedical research agency, said it was carrying out an investigation into the reports about faulty kits.
“The kits would be tested and validated by ICMR teams and an advisory on their use issued in the next two days. If they were found to be not up to the mark, replacements would be sought from the manufacturers,” ICMR chief Dr. R. R. Gangakhedkar said.
In recent weeks, India has received about 1 million COVID-19 test kits from China, which several state governments have been using to try and find out if community transmission of the virus was taking place. But reports of problems over the accuracy of test results have raised concerns that the entire COVID-19 response might have been compromised.
“This has seriously hampered our efforts to get fast test results for starting treatment and containing the spread of the virus,” said Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of the northern state of Rajasthan.
On Wednesday, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases in India rose to 20,471, with 652 deaths. A spike in the numbers has been observed for the past three days, with nearly 1,000 new infections reported a day.
“The confusion regarding the kits is the result of lack of planning by the Indian government and failure to mobilize internal resources for producing testing kits on a mass scale,” renowned virologist Dr. T. Jacob John, from the Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore, told Arab News.
“India did not prepare itself to face the impending crisis despite being aware of what is happening all around. India should have utilized its ‘Make in India’ slogan and asked its own biotech companies to produce testing kits. There was no need to import.
“We will not know the full extent of the spread of COVID-19 unless we become more proactive in testing, instead of being reactive. More testing is the key,” he said.
India currently relies on the real time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (real time RT-PCR) method for detecting the virus. While the technique can deliver a reliable diagnosis, the whole process — from collecting nasal swab samples to testing — can take between 24 and 36 hours.
However, rapid tests deliver results within 15 minutes and work on blood samples instead of nasal swabs. They are also much cheaper.
Under India’s national health insurance scheme, only 500 million out of the country’s 1.4 billion population are eligible to undergo lab testing for free, with others having to pay 4,500 rupees ($59).
The test fee was fixed by the Supreme Court on April 13 in order to prevent private laboratories from charging exorbitant sums, but the move has been widely criticized by health experts.
Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, from the New Delhi-based NGO Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, said: “The government cannot think of cost and pricing at this stage and it should open the private labs for free testing for the general good. The government should compensate the private labs.”
Malini Aisola, of the New Delhi-based All India Drug Action Network, said: “This is a public health emergency and the government needs to have the ownership of the testing.”