Testing capacity up, but is Karnataka equipped to expand it further?

Karnataka set to add 10 more PCR machines to its testing network by month-end

April 19, 2020 12:19 am | Updated 12:23 am IST - Bengaluru

A mobile COVID-19 testing kiosk set up near the KSR Bengaluru City Railway Station.

A mobile COVID-19 testing kiosk set up near the KSR Bengaluru City Railway Station.

Karnataka’s testing capacity has gone up from 500 tests per day done till last week to 2,000 per day this week. As on April 18, Karnataka has conducted 19,186 tests cumulatively.

But going by the State’s plans of random testing and testing of secondary contacts, do we have the required infrastructure for further expanding testing activities? Karnataka as of now has 17 laboratories with RNA-based PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines. But the rate at which the disease is spreading, there is a need to further ramp up testing and the State is ill-equipped for that now, said sources.

U.S. Vishal Rao, an oncologist and a public health expert, said there was a need to crowdsource PCR machines as only rampant testing can help the government determine the actual number of cases. “While the focus is on shortage of ventilators, we have not realised the shortage of PCR machines, testing kits, and biosafety level-2 labs required for testing COVID-19 samples. Another area that needs attention is availability of trained technicians,” Dr. Rao said.

However, V. Ravi, senior professor and head of Neuro Virology at NIMHANS, who is also part of the State’s committee set up to analyse epidemiology of COVID-19 cases, said the State was all set to add 10 more PCR machines to its testing network by this month-end. “As per ICMR’s guidelines, the State should have 60 labs by May-end and we are working towards that,” he said.

Centralised procurement

Although health officials said there was no dearth of testing kits and that the kits would be supplied as and when required by the laboratories, sources admitted that the Centre’s direction to States to not procure any required COVID diagnostic and treatment materials on its own was going to create undue delay in the State’s surveillance.

Even as the State is waiting for its order of one lakh rapid antibody testing strips, the Centre allotted only 11,400 strips to Karnataka from a consignment of 6.5 lakh strips that it received from China. Now, while these rapid antibody strips will only serve the purpose of surveillance and not diagnosis, sources said the State had expected a higher share from the Centre.

Karnataka was the first State to place an order for the antibody strips and the delivery has been delayed owing to some technical issues. “Now, we have contacted two other firms for a total of 2 lakh strips and they have promised to deliver 80,000 strips by Tuesday. These strips will be helpful in doing the preliminary surveillance and those who test positive in the rapid screening can be taken up for confirmation through RNA-based PCR tests. This will help us in taking up confirmatory tests only for those who show positivity in the rapid tests,” said C.N. Manjunath, the nodal officer for lab testing in the State’s COVID-19 Taskforce.

“In the U.S. and other countries, there is a community spread and testing there is on a mass scale. That is not India’s requirement currently as the spread is contained,” Dr. Manjunath claimed.

Jawaid Akhtar, Additional Chief Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, said the State’s testing capacity had been increasing by the day. “The 11,400 strips that we have got now are from the ICMR’s pool and they were allotted based on the number of incidence. Our order is expected to be delivered in a few days. These strips are being validated at NIMHANS and will be allotted for use in districts based on the technical committee’s recommendations,” he said.

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