The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has reported that the number of samples tested daily for COVID-19 crossed 30,000 on Thursday. This is nearly four times the number of samples tested daily at the beginning of the month and almost double the number at the end of last week. On Thursday, ICMR also made the reassuring announcement that it has started testing in areas which have no COVID-19 cases, using the serological method. The use of this method is likely to be scaled up with the country finally receiving the long-delayed consignment of 5 lakh antibody testing kits from China — another 6,50,000 kits have, reportedly, been dispatched from Guangzhou. However, by all accounts, India’s demographics will constrain testing on the scale deployed by global leaders such as South Korea and Germany. It is imperative, therefore, that the country makes smart use of testing kits.
The ICMR has clarified that the rapid antibody testing kits “will be used for surveillance” and not for diagnosis. In several countries, the serological method — a rapid antibody test that shows if a person once infected by the coronavirus has developed immunity to it — is used to track the trajectory of COVID-19 in clusters. In India, too, the ICMR’s protocol prescribes these tests to ascertain the success of containment methods in the hotspots. However, it seems that even in clusters with a high caseload, COVID-19 patients are not being tracked in time. For example, as reported by this newspaper, 72 households had to be quarantined in a Delhi locality, parts of which have been notified as hotspots, after they had come into contact with a coronavirus-positive pizza delivery employee. This patient, reportedly, had a persistent cough since the last week of March but continued to work till April 13.
States which have had success in the battle against COVID-19 — notably Kerala — have complemented testing with a robust disease surveillance system. Healthcare workers have taken the help of local communities and volunteers to reach out to people who show COVID-19 symptoms and counsel them to self-isolate before they are examined by doctors and tested for the coronavirus. The expansion of such syndromic surveillance in all the 170-odd hotspots could obviate cases like that of the South Delhi patient. It is important, of course, that such surveillance eschews any shows of high-handedness. The country’s high population density and its social and economic diversity dictate that it employs an array of methods in its fight against COVID-19, not just testing.