NEW DELHI: The government has shelved for now a plan to use rapid antibody testing kits for assessing the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in hotspot districts as it is not satisfied by the accuracy of the results, The New Indian Express has reliably learnt.
The move to postpone the usage of the kits—that had been imported following due approval from the National Institute of Virology under the Indian Council of Medical Research—brings huge embarrassment to the country’s top health research body, which is the nodal agency for the fight against COVID-19.
Sources in the Union Ministry for Health and Family Welfare said that Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, in a meeting of the group of ministers for the pandemic management, said the “outbreak in the country is under control and we can do without using the antibody testing kits as of now as there is doubt on the efficacy of the kits.”
Rapid antibody testing kits—as opposed to RTPCR kits that detect the presence of the virus in individuals in the middle of the infection—are meant to check whether somebody has already had the infection and are effective after at least 10 days of infection. They are more cost effective than RTPCR tests, are easier to use and were planned to check what proportion of the population has already been exposed to the virus.
On April 21, the Indian Council of Medical Research had said it would investigate the issue of faulty rapid testing kits after getting the kits evaluated by eight research teams and will issue fresh guidelines after two days.
However, no clarification has been issued by the agency even five days later though on April 22, it had issued a protocol to the states reiterating that the kits be used only for surveillance purposes and not for diagnosis of infection in individuals.
Around 5.5 lakh rapid test kits had been procured by the government recently from two Chinese firms -- Guangzhou Wondfo and Zhuhai Livzon -- and were sent to states after the ICMR recommended that extensive sampling would be carried out in coronavirus hotspots for epidemiological purposes.
Rajasthan, which tested nearly 100 confirmed COVID-19 patients using the antibody kits and found that they could detect just five patients, was the first state to flag the issue to the Centre and the ICMR after which several other states raised the matter.
Officials in the ministry said it is likely that the rapid testing kits bought from Chinese firms will be returned but added that more kits are expected from South Korea—that reportedly work better. Efforts are also on to get these kits manufactured indigenously.