As Manipur government sets in motion mass evacuation of Manipuris stranded outside the state, the only two COVID-19 testing laboratories of the state are being pushed to its limits. With limited equipment and manpower, the two labs are struggling to keep up with the pace of the influx of stranded migrants.
One of the Virus Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (VRDL) is in the state-run Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) and the other is in the centrally-sponsored Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS).
On May 3, the state successfully conducted the highest number of tests in a single day, 44 samples in RIMS and 48 in JNIMS. The tests followed after the successful evacuation of the first batch of as many as 92 stranded Manipuris from Guwahati and Mizoram on May 2. All the 92 returnees were tested negative and sent to their homes the next day for Home Quarantine.
The successful evacuation and pool testing has resulted in bringing more stranded particularly in the Northeastern region into the state by road on a daily basis.
As per the authority of both the Institutes, they are sometimes getting over a hundred samples in a day with the prevailing pace of evacuation.
Prof. Ch Arunkumar, medical superintendent RIMS, said that the institute can test around 180 samples within 24 hours which is the maximum limits the lab can take. However, it is easier said than done for it is a grueling task which can take 13 hours non-stop work to complete the report, said Ch. Arunkumar.
He said that in the recent test conducted on May 3, the testing was started around 6:30 pm and concluded in the wee hours around 2:30 am. On Saturday, as many as 217 samples were received but only 120 tests could be completed.
The VRDL in RIMS has two machines for the extraction of Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) and Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT PCR) machine which detects the COVID-19 virus.
The RNA machines have the capacity to test around 60 samples in a single run and it takes around two and a half hours to complete. Similarly, the RT PCR machines of RIMS have the capacity to test 80 samples and takes around 3 hours. The RIMS lab is operated by seven members comprising of technicians, Virologists among others.
Prof. KS. Sulochana, incharge of VRDL RIMS and principal investigator, said that the challenge begins with the unwrapping of triple-layered tape of the test tubes which takes over a minute per tube. To makes things worse, all the tasks inside the bio lab are done wearing full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits, said Sulochana.
“It’s a very taxing task. To push the lab to its maximum limit will take around 12 to 13 hours of non-stop work. This is not practical on a daily basis. The more you give mental stress higher the chances of making an error. The technicians and doctors are also human beings who need a break”, Sulochana lamented.
The VRDL in the state-run JNIMS has only one RNA extraction machine and three RT PCR machines with a six-member team operating the lab.
Dr Th. Bhimo, Director, JNIMS, said that the maximum tests his institute can conduct in a day are 144 samples.
The COVID-19 test is performed in addition to the other tests like Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis which cannot be sidelined, he said. So far, the JNIMS VRDL has tested over 800 tests till Monday.
“Those who are conducting the test in the lab with limited resources are the most vulnerable ones. They are the real heroes in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. The government should come up with a separate policy for them”, said Dr Th. Bhimo.
What concerns the two institutes, JNIMS and RIMS, most is the mass evacuation of thousands of stranded Manipuris from the mainland by train.
According to RIMS medical superintendent, the two labs alone will not be able to handle the volume given the current resources and manpower. He said that the government must come up with an immediate plan to prevent the situation to slip out of hands.
The medical superintendent suggested that the Government should rope in reputed private diagnostic centres to ease the already burdened VRDLs. “Setting aside the limited manpower, to test thousands of samples with limited equipment is another risk we cannot take at the moment. If the equipment are out of order installing new ones will take time”, he said.
Moreover, opening more quarantine centres and bringing in the stranded by maintaining a gap of at least a week can also mitigate the hectic operation, added the medical superintendent of RIMS.
The first train carrying 1,200 stranded Manipuri from Chennai left the city on Sunday night. The train is likely to arrive in Jiribam district on Tuesday. Train carrying similar numbers of Manipuris will also disembark from Punjab, Chandigarh and Bangalore on May 12 and 14 respectively.