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Testing Times – Cover Story News

On March 14, about 20 angry senior citizens stood outside Delhi’s RML Hospital. Suffering from cold and cough for the past few days, they were terrified they had COVID-19 and wanted to be tested. However, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines, only those with symptoms and a history of travel are to be tested. I returned from the UK 10 days ago and while I have no symptoms, I’m worried, says Nitin Mathur, 57, a Dwarka resident.

Meanwhile, 65-year-old Shikha Bhatia from Noida, who has the symptoms but no travel history, says she has been sick for eight days. According to ICMR, testing facilities cannot be extended to all since India has yet to enter the community transmission phase (when a person has been infected by a domestic case with no travel history). Currently, only cases of local transmission have been reported between those with a travel history and their associates.

Testing for COVID-19 involves a swab sample being sent to a laboratory, which is tested with two main methods, molecular recognition and serology testing. In India, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is being done by ICMR to detect the virus. The PCR test works by amplifying the genetic material of the virus. If coronavirus is present in the sample, it gets amplified. India has conducted around 12,000 tests so far, while South Korea has crossed 200,000 (averaging 15,000 tests a day). In India it takes 24-48 hours for test results to come, while in South Korea it can be done in 15 minutes. The latter’s efficiency with testing is what many say is a reason for the rapid decline in COVID-19 infections there.

On March 16, the WHO pointed out that social distancing alone isn’t enough; testing, quarantine and contact tracing are needed in equal measure. A day later, the ICMR announced that it has begun random sampling (of those suffering from breathlessness or are in ICUs where their cause of infection is unknown) and that 20 samples have been sent to its 51 labs. This still seems small given India’s 1.3 billion population, but it is a start. The results, expected later in the week, will give a glimpse of whether we are at the community transmission phase or not. The last official figure for the number of test kits available was 300,000. On March 17, ICMR chief Dr Balram Bhargava said one million more have been ordered. We have also requested the WHO for 1 million probes. Plus, we are operationalising two rapid testing laboratories by the end of this week. They will be able to test 1,400 samples per day, he said. Currently, 72 functional ICMR labs are available for testing, and 49 more will be active by month-end. The choice of random sampling as opposed to expanding testing to all is to avoid futile testing, says ICMR scientist Nivedita Gupta. However, the people’s mental anxiety has not been factored in. Reassurance is a public need during a biological emergency, says Dr K.K. Aggarwal, former president of the Indian Medical Association. While the state may have reasons for low testing, they have to convey this to the last person on the ground. Fear and stigma will make things worse.

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