SLOW DRIVE IN FAST TEST LANE
SLOW DRIVE IN FAST TEST LANE
India has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. Will new, locally made kits change its programme?
Jeevan Prakash Sharma and Ajay Sukumaran

A Bangalore-based executive will complete his 14-day home quarantine this week. He is in a dilemma, though. Ever since he returned from an overseas business trip, he has been cooped up in a room in his home, peeking at his family only through a window. The solitary spell has been quite an experience. Initially, he grappled with anxiety as news of the novel coronavirus exploded. Days later, there was a visit from local health authorities, who stamped a quarantine seal on his hand—an event that piqued neighbours’ curiosity. From time to time, he got an IVR call: “If you have no symptoms, press 1. If you have cough, fever or breathing difficulty, press 2.” He has not gone beyond 1. Yet, knowing that people can be asymptomatic and still be infected with the virus leaves him with a nagging question as the quarantine comes to an end—is it safe to meet his family again? “The only way to know is by testing,” he says.

Facilities have indeed been ramped up and more people are being tested now—nearly 18,000 tests were conducted last week across the country, which was double the cumulative figure until March 22. In all, over 47,000 people had been tested by midweek (April 1). But the approach, however, is still calibrated. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends only symptomatic people in quarantine, health workers and the contacts of laboratory-confirmed positive cases be tested. Besides this, hospitalised patients with severe respiratory illnesses are being tested as a COVID-19 surveillance measure. Overall, testing figures are still low compared to other countries and the available capacity—the utilisation rate stood at 38 per cent by midweek.

Both the health ministry and ICMR point out that isolation—if people adh­ere to the lockdown scrupulously—will be crucial in limiting the outbreak. Experts reckon that testing will regardless have to be ramped up to know whether the lockdown has succeeded.

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April 13, 2020