NEW DELHI: What the Union health ministry described as “an occasional lag", a month ago has now become a daily affair. The ministry is out of sync with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) over data on novel coronavirus infections in the country.
The discrepancy has been evident since the day both started displaying data on their websites. Typically, ICMR's numbers are higher than those of the ministry. For instance, the ministry on Sunday said the number of infections rose to 16,116 but the ICMR website recorded 17,615 covid-19 cases.
But despite an everyday occurrence, the government has continued call the lag "occasional". The lag can range from 200 to 2,000 on a given day.
“We report numbers only after coordinating with states and receiving ground-level confirmation from districts. This process leads to an occasional lag," Lav Agarwal, joint secretary, union health ministry, said when asked during a daily briefing
Former finance minister, P. Chidambaram, called this out in a tweet on Sunday. “Numbers of positive cases put out today by the states, by ICMR and by ministry of health are conflicting and confusing," he said.
“I rely on the dashboard jointly hosted by M/Health and ICMR. The difference between the dashboard number and ICMR’s number for April 18 is an astonishing 1,573. Will the M/Health and ICMR reconcile their reports from the states and report a uniform number every day?" he asked in his tweet.
Officials blame this on a slow system. "It takes 24 hours from the time a result is generated at a lab to it reflecting on the health ministry website. A diagnostic lab will give the data to the local body, which will then pass it on to the state government and ICMR and the process goes on till the health ministry," a senior official with one of the laboratories involved in testing for the virus told Mint.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that “it is critically important that all countries are able to report their covid-19 situation". Experts have called for standardised collection and collation of data as it can help in predictive analysis.
“An elaborate case record template for covid-19 patients can be used across all states. This can greatly help in standardised collection and collation of data. We will be missing a golden opportunity if we do not capture data in a structured way," said Dr Vijay Agarwal, president, Consortium of Accredited Healthcare Organizations (CAHO).
“The discrepancy between health ministry and ICMR data can be resolved by following a uniform data capturing template and protocols. This data should then be accessible to data scientists for creating algorithms for predictive analysis," he said.
“There are multiple agencies involved here and the IT system is not robust enough to have better real-time updates, so there can be a mismatch," an official said.
However, public health experts say data discrepancy is fairly common in an outbreak of this scale. Himanshu Sikka, lead- health, nutrition and WASH, IPE Global, an international healthcare development consulting firm, argued that getting real-time data in times of a crisis is always difficult and some level of mismatch is expected.
“It’s quite possible that one agency has double counted a case which has gone for repeat testing and this could very well be the (cause of) difference. As time passes and agencies are able to cross-check figures with each other’s data, the difference is expected to come down," Sikka said.
(Leroy Leo contributed to the story.)