Lockdown helps, but wider corona testing a must

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Published: March 30, 2020 12:15:22 AM

Government is working on bolstering testing capacity; CDDEP recommends continuing serological survey.

Given researchers speak of the need for multiple lockdowns over a long period, testing and isolation must also become part of India’s anti-Covid 19 arsenal.

India’s 21-day lockdown, which comes much earlier in the infection curb than similar ones in the US, the UK, Italy, and China, will undoubted help flatten the Covid-19 infection curve.But, the government will do well to focus on wider testing during this period. As FE columnist Chandra Bhushan’s recent article shows, five Covid-19 research studies, including one by ICMR scientists, agree that wider testing (to capture infection in even asymptomatics), and isolation can best contain Covid-19 spread.

Indeed, while the WHO is facing criticism from many quarters for its role in the pandemic—it has been silent on China’s initial inaction, and suppressing of information—what it says about the efficacy of a lockdown without concurrent testing and isolation seems true: It may help flatten the transmission curve, but once lifted, could lead to a resurgence of the virus. Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College, London, epidemiologist whose forecast of the expected number of Covid-19 deaths in the UK & the US forced the two countries to change strategy, told a panel of UK lawmakers that the lockdown in that country could help bring expected Covid-19 deaths down from 500,000 to 20,000.

However, a John Hopkins University-Center for Disease Dynamics Economics and Policy release, which estimates 12 crore infected in India in the best case scenario, and around 19 crore affected in the medium (most likely, with current lockdowns) scenario, bats for status-wise regional lockdowns instead of a country-wide one, and extensive testing, inlcuding immediate and continuing serological survey to ascertain the stage of epidemic. Experts have been urging India to test more; a general criticism of the country’s anti-corona strategy is that the low numbers reported so far are due to the government not testing as widely as it should have.

Given this, the government move to bolster testing capacity by 150 times—from the 25,000-26,000 tests conducted so far to procuring testing kits to conduct nearly 37 lakh tests—is a big leap towards meaningful corona control. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), earlier this month, had spoken of the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, having placed orders for reagents to conduct 10 lakh tests, apart from India having requested the WHO to provide for 10 lakh more tests. On March 25, the government invited bids from the private sector for the supply of testing kits for 17 lakh more tests—7 lakh RNA extraction based, and 10 lakh Covid-19 antibody (serological) based. Just as important, the government will now allow testing kits that have received approval from the NIV, Pune, in addition to those that have either US FDA or EU’s CE approval—in its March 17 notification of guidelines for testing by private laboratories, the government had specified that only testing kits with either of the latter two approvals could be used. This would have hamstrung plans to bolster testing capacity through domestic procurement since, as per a report by Times of India, only one Ahmedabad-based producer’s kits would have met the requirement, while 18 producers qualified if NIV, Pune, approval is included.

Domestic testing capacity also got a fillip from the government allowing approval of testing kits by three other national institutes—the National AIDS Research Institute (Pune), National Institute of Pathology (Delhi), and National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (Kolkata). Given researchers speak of the need for multiple lockdowns over a long period, till pharmacological solutions to the infection are not found, testing and isolation must also become part of India’s anti-Covid 19 arsenal.

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