India’s testing capacity continues to be majorly reliant on global supply chains even as domestic manufacturing of other COVID-19-related requirements has been rapidly ramped up.
An examination of procurement and company approvals shows that foreign firms account for the largest chunk of company approvals for COVID-19 diagnostic materials in the country.
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According to the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) list released on Wednesday, 85 of 95 (close to 90 per cent) approved antibody test kit manufacturers are foreign companies. Similarly, 11 out of 21 (more than 50 per cent) ICMR-approved RT-PCR manufacturers are foreign. Sixty per cent of the approved rapid antibody test manufacturers are Chinese.
Similarly, India’s recent procurement of 35 lakh RT-PCR tests by the Department of Health Research is 90 per cent imported, according to a detailed presentation on May 1 by P D Vaghela, Secretary, Department of Pharmaceuticals and Chairman of the Empowered Group on PPEs, ventilators, etc.
Even after the Indian Council of Medical Research halted the use of antibody test kits after their faulty results, the latest approval list shows a continuing reliance on Chinese-made products.
CDSCO’s antibody testing kit approval list on April 5 featured no Indian companies, 27 Chinese ones and two Korean ones.
It is the shortage of essential components that has made India’s antibody testing capacity almost entirely reliant on foreign companies. India has begun to source these components from countries like China, where the outbreak began earlier and scientists have had the opportunity to synthesise them.
An official of a foreign company, which is providing RT-PCR extraction kits for the Centre and several states, told The Indian Express that the obstacle for RT-PCR kits was more infrastructural. “Other countries that have been doing this for months have an easier time scaling up than India,” he said.
Among other COVID-19-related requirements, the highest imported category is N-95 masks, of which 40 per cent (1 crore of 2.49 crore units) is purchased from abroad. Second is personal protective equipment (PPEs), of which one-third (80 lakh of 2 crore) has been ordered from foreign companies.
“Domestic production (of PPE) was nothing before this, and now 1.87 lakh are being made every day,” said Vaghela at the May 1 press conference.
Vaghela emphasised the unprecedented levels of procurement by the government, especially for products that India has been able to source entirely domestically. All of the 1.3 lakh purchased oxygen cylinders are from Indian manufacturers, and another 5 lakh industrial oxygen cylinders will be converted into medical ones.