Coronavirus | Amit Shah intervention made ICMR expand labs for testing COVID-19

Home Minister Amit Shah. File

Home Minister Amit Shah. File   | Photo Credit: PTI

After the first positive case was detected on January 30, all samples were sent only to NIV, Pune

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) expanded the number of laboratories that could conduct COVID-19 tests on an intervention by the Union Home Minister, The Hindu has learnt.

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After the first COVID-19 positive case was detected on January 30, all samples were sent only to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. As cases surged and need was felt to ramp up testing, the ICMR was asked to enable more laboratories to conduct the tests.

Owing to multiple factors, including paucity of kits, the ICMR follows strict guidelines before samples are collected from a person showing symptoms.

In a meeting in March, Home Minister Amit Shah asked ICMR Director General Dr. Balram Bhargava to include more facilities that could carry out the tests, else the responsibility would be given to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). On March 17, the ICMR activated 72 more laboratories to test for COVID-19 and revised the testing criteria for the same.

Also read | ICMR approves use of diagnostic machine used for drug-resistant TB for COVID-19

On March 23, it fast-tracked approval for Indian COVID-19 testing kits for commercial use in the ICMR approved government and private laboratories.

The ICMR is the apex body for “formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research” and , is one of the oldest medical research bodies in the world.

With India's confirmed cases approaching the 5-digit mark and positives doubling every 4-6 days, there were criticisms that the ICMR's strategy appeared to be focussed on border control and applying a restrictive testing criteria.

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Until March 20, it had tested only around a 1000 samples of those hospitalised with severe acute respiratory illness (SARI). This was to check prevalence of the disease in the wider population.

This was in addition to those who displayed symptoms and had a travel history or had contact with someone who. It expanded testing to non hospitalised SARI only after mid March, and found several instances where patients didn't have a travel history or history of contact.

Low number of tests

While the organisation now conducts nearly 11-13k tests a day, India still has a low number of tests, about 100,per million of population.

Also read | In February, ICMR scientists doubted efficacy of lockdown

The low testing is also due to a reliance on imported kits, which is influenced by global supply chains, inadequate lab facilities to analyse a sufficient number of samples simultaneously and fewer trained personnel to conduct these tests. While it has roped in private labs, many say they are unable to conduct tests simply because the Supreme Court has ordered tests to be done for free and the government hasn't detailed a plan on how it would compensate companies for these tests.

On January 17, flights from China and Hong Kong were placed on surveillance at three airports and screening of passengers arriving from all international flights began on March 4 when the first-time ever number of positive case jumped from 6 to 24. The first case was reported on January 30. As on March, there was only one district in Maharashtra, where more than 10 cases were reported and by April 4, the number of such districts spiked to 70. Till Sunday, the number of affected districts stood at 354.

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On March 27, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba wrote to all the States to monitor 15 lakh passengers who arrived at the international airports from January 18-March 23 and stressed that despite details of all passengers shared with the States, there was a gap in effective monitoring.

(With inputs from Jacob Koshy)

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2020 6:01:50 PM |

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