Covid-19: More voices call for ‘free testing’

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on March 30, 2020 Published on March 30, 2020

Pointing to the need for more testing kits, industry players caution on reagents’ short-supply


The call for “free testing” to detect the coronavirus (Covid-2019) in people is resonating across the world, as the global number of confirmed cases crosses six lakh.

In the US, former Senator and Presidential candidate Joe Biden said: “Let me be clear: No one should have to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment.”

In India, too, several voices are calling for “free testing” including civil society representatives and celebrities like former silver-screen and talk-show host Simi Garewal.

This comes even as members of the scientific community urge the Centre to expand the criteria for testing, so more people can be brought under the net.

‘Govt should bear cost’

Recently, India has seen an increase in regulatory activity involving diagnostic kits. Pune’s Mylab Discovery Solutions, the only Indian company to have made the cut as required by the Indian Council of Medical Research, is poised to deliver its first batch of 15,000 kits. Priced at ₹1,200 per kit, the fledgeling company said it could manufacture one lakh tests in a week and scale up as required.

The Centre had capped the price of tests at ₹4,500, even as the ICMR urged private labs to provide it for free. But a recent civil society letter to Prime Minsiter Modi called the ICMR’s call for private labs to provide free testing as “unrealistic.” Irrespective of whether an individual is tested in a public or private lab, “the government should bear the cost,” said the joint letter by the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the All India Drug Action Network and the All India People’s Science Network.

Urging the government to have a free test and treatment policy in the face of the pandemic, the letter said: “The constraints of public health infrastructure will make the use of the private sector necessary for testing as well as treatment.” As infection spreads, particularly at the community level, it is inevitable that more of the private sector will be pressed into action, it added.

With a large section of the population outside the government’s schemes, it would be vulnerable to the catastrophic expenditure and exploitation that could happen in this wake, the letter cautioned.

Reagents shortage

Mylab is one of four companies whose test kits have been recommended by the ICMR for further rollout in the country. About 17 companies had been evaluated. Mylab’s PCR kits are said to screen and detect the infection within 2.5 hours, compared to seven-plus hours taken by current protocols.

In addition to this, the Centre has given a green signal to another 13-odd rapid antibody kits for use in the initial screening for Covid-19.

With public and private labs now involved in testing and over 15,000 sample collection centres, screening and diagnostics would involve a lot of logistics management, said KM Gopakumar with Third World Network. To simplify its implementation, the government should bulk procure kits and distribute them to the labs, he told BusinessLine.

Pointing to the Dutch experience on reagents used in diagnostic kits, he said these concerns existed in the local market as well. The civil society letter too pointed out, “Laboratories in public health systems across the world have had delays in securing reagents.”

Pointing to the absence of local supplies in reagents and their raw materials needed in laboratories and kits for Covid-19 and other diseases, the letter urged the Centre to mobilise the domestic industry for the same.

Published on March 30, 2020

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