In the Suburban Diagnostics laboratory in Mumbai, about a dozen samples arrived on Tuesday for COVID-19 tests. The lab was granted approval to start testing on Sunday. Around 35 technicians and staffers, half the lab’s strength, are busy working on the samples. Dr Anupa Dixit, the lab director, is visibly tense — the lab has only 100 test kits, and will run out in three days.
“We need kits urgently. There are only a few manufacturers in India that the government has approved,” Dixit said, looking through the glass door into the lab where portable white machines go about extracting and amplifying the virus.
Suburban Diagnostics is one of the 22 private laboratories approved by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to start testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus. In addition, 120 government labs are involved in the testing.
Not just kits, the private labs have been hit badly by the lockdown as well. Staff remains skeletal as many are afraid to step out and those who do, have been stopped by the police. And kits will soon run dry.
Meanwhile, the delay in government approvals for new manufacturers of kits is a serious worry for the labs.
The government had already approved Roche Diagnostics to supply testing kits. On Monday, the central government approved German company Altona Diagnostics and domestic producer MyLab to supply real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) Kits. Dr Sanjay Arora, managing director of Suburban Diagnostics, said they have placed orders with both manufacturers but have been asked to wait for at least a week.
An official from MyLab said once they begin production, they can scale up to manufacturing kits for 15,000 tests per day. “But the challenge is logistics. We have 120 centres of laboratories in India where we need to supply. Shutdown has affected transportation. We can produce but how do we distribute kits,” the official said.
MyLab is the first Indian manufacturer to supply for COVID-19 testing. Till now, India is importing kits, mostly from Germany, for testing. The supply has been hit due to airline grounding and the shutting down of airports.
The lockdown has also crippled transportation for laboratory staffers. Arokiaswamy Velumani, managing director in Thyrocare, said his laboratory technicians have been unable to reach lab centres. “Several technician’s families are not letting them go. If some leave, the police stops them from further travel. The lockdown is necessary, but it’s affecting us badly,” Velumani said.
He too faces a shortage of kits. “We have about 1,000 kits in four laboratories in western India. The pressure is building, we hope government will not let the pressure cooker burst,” Velumani said.
On Tuesday, its first day of testing, Thyrocare had received 50 samples for testing from government hospitals.
These labs have also been informed that soon they will have to collect nasal or throat swabs from homes of suspected infected persons. Labs do not have enough trained technicians to do that job. “We are at a stage where we can compromise on qualified technicians, what we need are trained technicians. A technician needs 50 hours of training on how to collect swab, what to touch, what not to touch, how to prevent contamination,” he said.
According to ICMR guidelines, private labs can only test symptomatic people with an international travel history, close contacts of confirmed cases, symptomatic health care workers, or patients suffering from acute respiratory distress. The maximum cap at each test is Rs 4,500. Private laboratories are, however, flooded with requests from common public who want to get tested. Thyrocare received 15,000 inquiries on Tuesday.
Suresh Vazirani, founder of Transasia Biomedicals Limited, said his company is also working on developing testing kits for SARS-CoV-2. “We hope government approvals come fast for it,” he said.