Home / News / India /  Govt fast-tracks approval of kits to speed up virus testing

NEW DELHI/BENGALURU : States can use rapid testing kits to screen large numbers of people in hotspots for the novel coronavirus, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said on Thursday, marking a shift in the government’s strategy toward testing at scale on a day the total number of cases crossed 2,000.

It also expanded testing capacity by allowing all national research laboratories, including those under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), to screen those suspected of contracting the virus as the number new cases spiked.

The new rapid testing kits involve two levels of testing. First, there is a serological test conducted on blood samples which detects whether the person has been exposed to the coronavirus. If the person tests positive, a second test using real time-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) will be conducted by taking a throat or nasal swab. If the rapid antibody test turns out negative, the person will be quarantined at home. “The changes in testing protocol are being discussed. The final protocols will be out by Friday morning," said Dr Raman R. Gangakhedkar, head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at ICMR.

The results are quick to show—a day for an RT-PCR test, and only half-an-hour for the rapid antibody test. RT-PCR, however, confirms whether the person has covid-19, while the rapid antibody test merely shows whether the person’s immune system has been exposed to the virus.

As of Wednesday, India had tested 47,951 people for covid-19, according to ICMR. This comes to about 35 tests per million people. In contrast, South Korea has conducted 6,148 tests per million, and Vietnam 159 per million, according to Our World in Data. WHO has repeatedly stressed the importance of testing to understand the spread and scale of the virus.

Another challenge to mass testing is that India has just 178 laboratories–126 government and 52 private—that have been approved by ICMR for covid-19 testing. Thursday’s decision is likely to boost this capacity although it’s immediately unclear by how many. Bihar does not have a single such private lab, while Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Uttarakhand have just one each. Even states like Kerala and Karnataka, which have smaller populations, have only two private labs each.“Covid-19 testing and its trajectory cannot be decided until we have adequate testing facilities. In my view, we have more cases than are being reported, and we are not testing enough people," said Dr Kunal Sharma, oncopathologist and section head, pathology, SRL Reference Lab, Bengaluru.

Leroy Leo, Seethalakshmi S, Rahul Nandan and Srishti Choudhary contributed to this story.

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