Even as private diagnostic laboratories cite the Rs 4,500 price cap as one of the pain points for their coronavirus testing numbers stagnating at less than 20 per cent of daily tests done in the country, the Centre wants the price to be reduced further.
This is in the light of availability of indigenous testing kits and other supplies, unlike in March, when all these had to be imported amid tough global competition.
In a letter to states and Union Territories on Monday, Dr Balram Bhargava, Secretary, Department of Health Research, wrote: “Now, testing supplies are also stabilizing and many of you have started procuring such kits from local market. Due to varied options of testing materials/ kits, including indigenous ones, prices are becoming competitive and are undergoing reduction…. ICMR continuously advocates aggressive testing of lLl symptomatic persons, for which RT-PCR test is considered as Gold Standard.”
He wrote, “ln this backdrop, and keeping in view the evolving prices of testing commodities, the earlier suggested upper ceiling of INR 4,500 vide letter dated 17/3/2020 may not be applicable now”.
Therefore, Bhargava stated, all state governments and UT administrations are “advised to negotiate with private labs and fix mutually agreeable prices for samples being sent by the government and also for private individuals…”
The current price cap in private sector is Rs 4500, fixed in March.
On April 8, the Supreme Court asked the private sector to do Covid-19 tests for free, leading to a furore — private lab owners called it “very difficult”. The order was reversed soon, but private laboratories maintain that they are unable to recover expenses even with Rs 4,500 and are continuing the tests at a time when non-Covid operations are down 18-20 per cent of normal as a “service” to the nation.
Analysis of testing records between April 16 and May 23 shows that while tests in government labs went up by almost 270 per cent – from 23,932 to 88,947 – for private labs it rose more sharply: just under four times, from 4,408 to 21,450.
But as a share of tests, private labs are way behind. On April 16, these labs did a little over 15 per cent of the total 28,340 tests done as on that day. By May 23, that figure grew only marginally to 19 percent – out of 1,10,397 tests.
In his letter, Bhargava noted, “At the beginning of COVID19 pandemic, there was a global crisis of testing kits and reagents as India was heavily reliant on imported products for molecular detection of viruses. As such, in mid-March, no rates for RT-PCR test for Coronavirus was available for reference in the country. Keeping in view the cost of imported kits and efforts involved in carrying out the test, ICMR suggested the upper limit of a single test as lNR 4,500…”
Incidentally, 182 private labs in the country make up 29 per cent of the total testing infrastructure. There are 428 government laboratories where Covid testing is currently taking place.
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