The doctor is out. And, that’s a rare sight at the Civil Lines campus in Delhi of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Especially over the last two months, where he has been putting in 17-hour workdays at the microbiology lab, dressed head to toe in protective gear.
Dr Partha Rakshit is not out for a morning break, though. The deputy director is on the phone with a manufacturer, discussing specifications for more equipment to boost his lab’s fight against the coronavirus.
The lab that Rakshit heads is one of 111 across the country, where tests are conducted on throat and nasal swabs of suspected cases — close to 100 a day at his lab alone these days, he says, from Delhi, UP, J&K and even Ladakh.
“We cannot see the virus, so we try to detect its genes in a sample. The first test narrows down the identity of the virus to the coronavirus family. This is what we call a screening test. In the next test, we try and detect genes that are specific to the novel coronavirus. The second test is done only when the first is positive,” he says.
At the NCDC building, the samples are collected in small boxes in a room downstairs and carried up in lots to the lab, where entry is severely restricted.
“So far, about 2,000 tests have been done and the normal 9.30 am-7 pm workday is stretched, sometimes from 7 am to even 2 am for all the 50 staff members. Our regular work, mostly on hepatitis, has taken a backseat,” says Rakshit.
The 44-year-old is the father of two girls, and his wife is a pathologist. But given the countless queries from hospitals and the need to get the results out as fast as possible, he and his colleagues have missed most of their family engagements, including Holi.
They just don’t want to take any chance, he says. The first test takes about 5-6 hours, and is repeated to ensure no mistake, which means each report takes about 8-9 hours.
“In the third week of January, the director called me to his office and asked if our lab had the capacity to test for COVID-19. I said ‘yes’ immediately. Since then, everything else has taken a backseat. We have no holidays, and planned leaves are being cancelled. My colleague had a puja at home, and was on leave. But I told her to leave everything and rush back, she did. But the amazing part is our families are proud of us. My two daughters, aged 8 and 13, know about the virus and that their father is working on it. We are not complaining,” he says.
Says Rakshit’s colleague Simrita Singh, who heads the respiratory medicine lab: “I missed my cousin’s wedding, and they were upset. But these are difficult times. I reach office at 8 am and sometimes stay back past 10 in the night.”
Singh has been with NCDC for 12 years and worked on swine flu. She says her days are packed during the flu season, this is the busiest she has ever been. “We are woken up at night, we come early in the morning, stay back late, all in a day’s work,” says the alumni of Maulana Azad Medical College and University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi.
Rakshit, meanwhile, is in charge of two national hepatitis programmes, and is busy through the year. His lab is a part of the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) network that tracks 33 diseases.
But now, he says, life is all about the coronavirus. “We are procuring a gel documentation system through funding from our development partners. I hope it comes as soon as possible. It will really help in increasing our capacity to conduct tests,” he says.
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