Dr Nadeem Rahman, a bio-chemist at Nu Life consultants and distributors, and his wife Afifa Rahman, a pharmacist at the same company, have spent the past few weeks working through the nights to fulfill their goal of producing 1 lakh rapid anti-body kits per day, meeting the pressing demand for such kits in India. “It feels good to have a purpose and be able to contribute to the country during these times. We are lucky we have found our purpose even through this hopeless period,” says Afifa, who adds that the couple have lost track of the time they spend in their office and laboratory since the company decided to begin manufacturing these kits.
Nu Life is one of the nine Indian companies which has received validation from NIV Pune and has been cleared by the ICMR to begin manufacturing of rapid antibody test kits, which would take less than 15 minutes to show results. There was a brief glitch in their plans due to some defective kits from China but they are back in action. “We received the approval on Monday, but we began working on producing the kits to be verified ever since the lockdown began,” says Afeefa. Without a moment lost, the team of bio-chemists, pharmacists and bio technicians working at the company began manufacturing the kits on April 14th, a day after they received the ICMR approval. Despite their quick action and fervent commitment, the team’s path towards meeting production goals is full of hurdles.
“If all the parameters are in place, which includes all the staff being able to commute to the workplace per usual, and all the raw materials for testing get delivered in time, then we can easily produce one lakh kits per day, but with current lockdown scenario and global shortage of raw materials, we are realistically producing 60,000 to 75,000 kits per day,” says Dr Nadeem, who is a founding member of the company and has driven the logistics and ideation behind their rapid test kit manufacturing project. According to his wife Afifa, even after the couple goes back to their house in Jasola, they spend time ideating on how to optimize their production. “As you can see, there is no escape from COVID 19 for us now,” remarks Afifa with a short laugh.
Before the company received approval from the government to manufacture kits, the couple would spend hours ferrying their staff to and fro between the laboratory and their homes. “Before they all got passes from the government, we had to make sure they reach home. We even worried for the women’s security, who stayed at the laboratory till late at night, finishing work, but now the UP government has provided passes to all our team members,” says Afifa. The company’s staff commutes from different parts of Uttar Pradesh, taking more than an hour to reach the office, so the team has planned to fix accommodation in the office premises soon, so that production deadlines can be met well in time. “It even limits their potential exposure to the disease which they could in turn pass on to their family members,” says Afifa.
Apart from the challenges of bringing the production staff together, Nadeem Rahman states that their biggest hurdle is the prompt delivery of raw materials. “We are getting access to these materials, but to ensure the best quality, you have to wait for the best products. The demand for antigens especially, has increased worldwide, leading to the shortage of its supply,” explains Nadeem. Antigens are the molecular structure that triggers antibody response in the blood sample deposited in the kit. It is this response which indicates the presence of SAR COV 2 infection in the patient tested for the disease.
Explaining how the testing kit is used, Nadeem states that the kit employs the same lateral testing technology which has been used in pregnancy tests. “Instead of urine though, you just place a drop of blood and if two red strips appear, it suggests that you have enough antibody response to indicate the presence of the virus,” he says. The manufacturing cost per kit is placed at Rs 500 to Rs 600, much less expensive than the Rt PCR test for COVID 19. “As we optimize production, hopefully the cost of the kits will remain close to the manufacturing cost. Either way, it should be accessible and affordable to all if goes straight to the market in the future,” says the scientist.
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