The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has said that media reports on the findings of its serological survey are ‘speculative’, but the sooner it makes the report public, the better; according to a report in The New Indian Express, nearly 15-30% of the population in containment zones in high caseload districts have been exposed to Covid-19, and they have recovered from the infection. If the final numbers that ICMR publishes are anywhere near this, that is good news since it suggests that the virus is a lot less deadly than believed; with a higher proportion of the population exposed to the virus, this means that infection levels and deaths per million population are much lower than what the current data suggests.
A serological survey would help understand the true spread of the virus, apart from allowing the authorities to know what part of the population (tagged to details such as geographic location, age cohort, density and occupation) has recovered from the infection and may have immunity, even if it is just for a matter of months. It will also aid the government in making key decisions, on refining the containment strategy, on marshalling frontline workers, etc. It will also help gauge the level of true asymptomatics in the population; this is key to checking spread via this route.
A seroprevalence study, however, has its limitations, and that is why India needs a far more liberal testing strategy than it has at the moment. While Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had further tightened the norms for testing asymptomatic persons, the current ICMR guidelines on such tests are themselves quite restrictive since they required those wanting to be tested to have been exposed to someone with Covid-19.
Ideally, anyone should be able to get a test done, especially since there is no shortage of testing kits today, and the bulk of those with the infection—70-80% based on an earlier ICMR estimate—are asymptomatic. Apart from getting tested being everyone’s right—there are several PILs in the court against the restrictions—it so happens that big cities like Delhi are finding that at least 20% of those being tested nowadays test positive. So, if the disease’s spread is to be restricted, people need to be tested and more complete contact-tracing must be done at the earliest. While Kejriwal’s rule on testing was rescinded by the lieutenant governor, it is the ICMR guideline that needs to be scrapped. Sadly, it is not just the Delhi government that is trying to keep the testing numbers low, Bihar has decided to scrap testing of migrants coming back to the state after June 1, testing in Mumbai has languished even as it has doubled in the rest of Maharashtra. With the political class seemingly united in wanting to keep testing low, the solution now lies in the hands of the courts.