Every morning for the last four days, 9-year-old Naitik Sharma has woken up, had poha for breakfast, and sat by his doorstep for hours to do just one task – insert two earbud-like long sticks in a plastic packet. For 1,000 packets, he earns Rs 20.
These plastic sticks, one thicker than the other, with cotton buds at each end, are swab sticks used to collect nasal and throat samples for RT-PCR tests.
Under Medical Devices Rules, 2017 (Form MD-5), which deals with low to moderate risk devices, the sticks require a sterile environment for production. Sharma places the sticks on the floor and uses his bare hands to pack them.
Dozens of slum households at Sant Gyaneshwar Nagar in Ulhasnagar, 50 km east of Mumbai, have been packing RT-PCR nasopharyngeal kits since last week through a local supplier, Maneesh Keswani.
On Wednesday, the local police and the Ulhasnagar Municipal Corporation (UMC) seized leftover swab stick stock from at least five households. Keswani has been booked under Indian Penal code and Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
The packed kits have ‘Bio-Swab’ written on them. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now trying to identify the manufacturer and check if he is registered with it. “No company by the name Bio-Swab is registered with the FDA. Thane region has only one manufacturer who has no link to this case. This could be a case of spurious manufacturing,” said Pravin Mundada, Joint Commissioner (Drugs).
He added that they are waiting for Keswani’s statement to be recorded to gather more information.
A swab is what goes into the throat and nose of a person to collect samples for Covid-19 tests. It is then carried in a viral transport media to a laboratory and tested for the presence of Sars-CoV-2 virus.
UMC Additional Municipal Commissioner Karuna Juikar, who visited the slum on Wednesday, said: “These kits are not being used in Ulhasnagar corporation hospitals. We have instructed private hospitals, chemists and doctors to not procure any kit with the name Bio-Swab on it.”
Deputy Commissioner Madan Sonde said the corporation is trying to ascertain who supplied these kits.
Naitik Sharma said that last week, he saw his friends pack the swab sticks along with their mothers. “I also got a box full of it.”
His mother, requesting anonymity, said she packed 1,000 such packets but is yet to receive payment. Her husband Ajay Sharma, who works in a furniture shop, is out of a job since lockdown-like curbs were imposed recently across the state. “We thought we will do some work sitting at home,” she said.
About 5,000 swab sticks have been distributed to each household, and at least a dozen families in the slum have been employed to pack them, a municipal official said.
Meenakshi Wadvirao, who lives near the Sharmas, said four members in her family would sit non-stop from noon till 7 pm and pack 5,000 kits a day. “We earned Rs 100. That is enough to buy vegetables.”
Wadivrao said she got the raw materials from Keswani, who owns a godown nearby. “He gave us a few instructions – don’t touch the cotton end, hold the stick from between, keep a chataai (mat) under the swabs, put two sticks in one plastic packing and don’t let dust enter the packet,” she added.
The slum residents said they packed the sticks with their bare hands. Nitika Rajbhar (14), who sat by an open nullah and helped her mother pack the swabs, said she kept them on a plate.
Bharati Chauhan, a local resident, said the slum dwellers were paid last year for a few weeks to do the same job. “Last year, women did this inside their houses. This year, children started packing too, sitting on the verandah or on the street.”
On Tuesday night, Keswani took away all the raw material from the slum dwellers. “He took all the stock, emptied his godown and shut it down,” said Surendra Yadav, who first shared the video of this activity on social media.
Senior Inspector Rajendra Kadam of Ulhasnagar police station said Keswani will be summoned for questioning.
When The Indian Express contacted Keswani, he said, “I don’t know anything about RT-PCR test kits.”
“If a person touches the swab with bare dirty hands or is himself infected with Covid-19 or some other infection, the swab can infect the person who takes it in his mouth. We know that the virus can last on surfaces for a few days,” said Dr Anupa Dixit, chief scientist at Suburban Diagnostics.
Dixit added as the numbers of RT-PCR tests keep rising, smaller hospitals and labs may be forced to opt for whatever supply they get.