Clamour for transparency of testing data grows shriller

With a colourful display of masks, this roadside vendor at Masab Tank waits for customers. These washable masks are available for ₹20 each.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

Why are fewer COVID-19 tests being conducted in the State? And why is data on the number of tests conducted not shared every day? These two questions are being posed to Telangana Health officials for the past few weeks. In fact, if one scrolls through replies to Health Minister Eatala Rajender’s tweets on the daily medical bulletin, concerns of citizens are quite evident.

Most of their concerns are centered on the number of tests. According to latest information provided by the Health Minister’s office on May 17, a total of 22,842 tests had been conducted in Telangana till May 14. Of those, 1,388 samples had tested positive.

In comparison, a little over 2.01 lakh tests were conducted in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, over 2.79 lakh in Tamil Nadu, and 2.30 lakh in Maharashtra. The highest number of positive cases have been reported from the latter two States.

While Health officials say they have been following Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR) guidelines and that their strategy is focused but not random, scientists, epidemiologists and doctors attending COVID-19 patients opined more tests will help detect more cases and know the exact extent of the infectious disease.

‘Real burden unclear’

T. Jacob John, a retired professor of virology at Christian Medical College, Vellore, and past president of Indian Academy of Pediatrics, says, “If 22,842 tests detected 1,388 cases, imagine the number of positive cases had 45864 tests been done. Most probably you would have found 2,776 infections! The number of infections detected are proportional to number of tests. Knowing this, you can ration tests to underestimate infections or liberalise tests to understand the real burden of infections.”

Kar Muthumani, director of Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases, at an institute in USA, also points out that more tests allow rapid detection, faster treatment and immediate isolation of infected individuals to prevent spread of SARS-CoV2.

“Additionally, early detection allows for the identification of anyone who came in contact with the infected individuals to reduce the likelihood of spread by asymptomatic carriers,” adds Dr Muthumani, who have developed vaccines for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Zika virus which are in human clinical trial stage.

Defending their testing strategy, Mr Rajender has, on multiple occasions, said that they are following ICMR guidelines.

Highly placed sources in the State Health department said that if the argument about more tests leading to more cases holds validity, the cases in Andhra Pradesh were supposed to be higher. A little over 2.01 lakh tests were conducted to detect 2,137 cases in AP till May 14. They said that ICMR guidelines are strictly adhered to, including tests on asymptomatic direct and high risk contacts.

“When we strictly follow ICMR guidelines, we get more cases. Our accuracy of tests is greater. More tests can be conducted, but what purpose will it serve if tests are not focused and less positives are detected,” highly placed sources in the Health department asks.

However, the demand to maintain transparency about data on number of tests, area and district positive cases, is growing shriller by the day.

After the bulletin is released at night, doctors who attend COVID-19 patients or suspects in the State compare it with medical bulletins of other States on WhatsApp groups or on Twitter to ask why the Telangana Health department cannot release day-wise data on tests conducted.

The informationm which was shared daily until March 19, is released by Health Minister’s office after long gaps, or when Mr Rajender holds a press conference. It was last shared on May 17, after a gap of 18 days.

Md Shazad, a chartered accountant based in Hyderabad who raised the issue, says, “In these crucial times, data transparency helps one know what the government is doing to tackle the virus.”

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 9:56:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/clamour-for-transparency-of-testing-data-grows-shriller/article31674093.ece

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