With seven government laboratories in Karnataka getting weighed down by a growing number of samples sent for RT-PCR COVID-19 tests, and the five private labs getting very few samples to test due to the Rs 4,500 cost fixed for RT-PCR tests, the state government has come to an agreement with private labs to send samples to them on the condition that the labs charge only Rs 2,250 per test.
The move comes following expansion of testing criteria, which now facilitate testing of people showing up with influenza-like symptoms at over 90 government and private fever clinics in the state, testing of all secondary contacts of coronavirus-positive persons, as well previous existing categories such as people with acute respiratory problems.
State Health Secretary Jawaid Akhtar said, “We had negotiations with private labs and Rs 2,250 rate fixed is for the government. Very few cases have been tested in private labs; we are now going to use this rate at five private labs in Bengaluru,”
Government labs test for free and have been flooded with samples.
Since April 11, when 585 samples were sent for testing from across the state, the number has gone up to 2,788 samples on Saturday, with the existing system able to conduct only 1,592 tests on the 2,788 samples sent for testing between Friday and Saturday.
Stating that government labs are doing the bulk of the tests, Dr Ashok M, in-charge scientist at one of two ICMR National Institute of Virology laboratories in Bengaluru, said, “Until last week we received 100-150 samples a day, which is now over 200, (due to) people showing influenza-like illness being eligible for testing.”
Akhtar said, “We are ramping up testing, which is needed to win the fight against the virus, but many private labs are not getting enough samples for testing. We are also collecting a large number of samples, so the government has reached an agreement on pricing with private labs.”
The NABL-accredited private labs in Karnataka chosen for testing have acquired ICMR-approved RT-PCR test kits from manufacturers in Germany, South Korea, the US and Indian firm Mylab, but have been largely unable to use them since the government did not work out any system to pay labs for tests sent through the government system.
Only one private lab — Neuberg Anand Reference Laboratory — has tested more than 300 samples sent to it from government hospitals. This lab offers testing facilities for free using funds available with a trust set up by the owners for charity work.
Until a few days ago, Cancyte Technologies Pvt Ltd, the second lab cleared by ICMR for tests, had received only 10 samples for testing on account of the Rs 4,500 cost. The lab has a capacity of doing 300 RT-PCR tests a day.
The three other private labs cleared for testing in Karnataka, as per an April 9 notification of ICMR, are Sakra World Hospital Lab Services, Central Diagnostic Lab at Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences, and Lab Services at Apollo Hospitals.
Dr Sujay Prasad, technical director of Neuberg Anand Reference Laboratory, said, “We have been conducting tests referred by the government free of cost by using funds from Susheela Ram Prasad Trust, which we run. We can do about 100 tests a day for 30 days and have done 200 tests in 10 days.”
The lab is using two US FDA-approved RT-PCR testing kits and kits from domestic firm Mylab to carry out testing. “The only way to know the extent of COVID-19 infection in the country is to expand testing on the lines of what South Korea did,” he said.
Dr K N Sridhar, director of Cancyte Technologies Pvt Ltd, said: “We can barely manage with the Rs 4,500 ceiling fixed by the government but we are okay with it. From a logistics point of view or business point of view, it is not feasible. Doing it free of cost would be feasible only if someone provides the kit.”
Stating that the country is “not doing enough tests, and that is the contradictory situation we are in now”, Dr Sridhar said, “We have told the government that the first 50 patients sent by them will be tested free of cost. Whenever donations come, we will do it at 50 per cent cost.”
While Karnataka had sought 1 lakh rapid testing kits to deploy in a complementary manner along side RT-PCR kits to test spread of the infection in areas where positive cases are detected, to test immunity of frontline workers and for sentinel surveillance, the state has got only 12,400 kits allotted to it by ICMR in a first lot imported from China after much delay.
Karnataka has recorded 384 confirmed coronovirus cases as of Saturday, including 14 deaths and 104 discharges.
The state has reported 2.3 percent positive cases of all samples tested, against the national average of around 4.3 percent. “The positivity rate is a sign of liberal testing in Karnataka,” State Health Commissioner Pankaj Kumar Pandey said in response to criticism that only 19,186 samples have been tested so far in the state.
Incidentally, more than 50 percent of people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Karnataka have been asymptomatic – or in other words showing no signs of fever, cough, cold or breathing problems, which is linked to COVID-19.
According to government data available until April 16, 189 people were asymptomatic when they tested positive for coronavirus, compared to 129 people who were symptomatic out of 315 who tested positive till April 16. This suggests that a lot of people who came into contact with the COVID-19 virus may be just carriers of the virus.
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