Random testing shows no community spread of Coronavirus thus far, WHO praises Govt.

Two batches of random testing done by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in Februrary & March to check for community transmission of Coronavirus have come out negative, as per media reports.

In this testing, random samples of people with severe acute respiratory illness, pneumonia and influenza-like symptoms admitted in ICUs across the country are tested for Covid-19. The first batch of random tests were done until February 29, which had come out negative. Later, 1020 random samples collected between the 1st and 15th of March were sent to 51 labs. The results of 500 samples are negative, while results of the remaining 520 samples will be available later today.

This shows that thus far, community-level transmission of the coronavirus is likely not taking place in Bharat, and the epidemic has been contained in Stage 2. If a positive case turns up in these random samples, the ICMR said, it would indicate community transmission and they would enforce localised quarantine and testing measures in the areas from where samples were collected.

WHO country office has praised Bharat’s efforts in handling the Coronavirus outbreak which has infected 2 lakh people worldwide and killed around 8000. Bharat has seen 147 cases thus far (25 of which are foreigners), with 3 deaths – all infected cases are of those with international travel history or those who came in contact with such travellers. Praising the Bharatiya government’s hands-on approach, WHO Country Representative Dr. Henk Bekedam said –

“The MoHFW (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) is monitoring the situation daily and India has managed to keep cases low by responding fast and aggressively. There is high-level involvement from the Prime Minister’s Office, which translates into intensified state- and field-level action.”

He also praised the rapid expansion of the testing network and the government’s social distancing call.

Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, ICMR Director General (DG) Balram Bhargava said, “It is reassuring that at the moment there is no evidence to indicate community outbreak.” However, he added, “It is too early to say that we have contained the virus. How strongly we close our borders… should help. We cannot say that community transmission will not happen.”

The ICMR’s community transmission random test is running parallel to the testing and tracking of symptomatic travellers, symptomatic contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases, and healthcare workers. More than 54,000 persons are under community surveillance and health workers are in regular touch with them. Non-symptomatic travellers or contacts are so far not being tested.

Questioned on why Bharat is not conducting more tests, especially of asymptomatic individuals, ICMR senior scientist R R Gangakhedkar said, “We are in Stage 2, therefore the WHO does not have country-specific guidelines…country strategies cannot be compared because it will depend on the stage each country is in. Do we have evidence to suggest that asymptomatic infections are occurring in the population and they are spreading? If suppose I am getting cases of infection from asymptomatic individuals, and of spreaders, it should mean that I should be able to detect at least a few symptomatic cases.”

It must also be noted that asymptomatic individuals have high chance of throwing a false negative on tests, thus creating a false sense of security. Such individuals, who have been in contact with infected persons are being told to stay isolated or being surveilled by health officials.

Ramping up of testing capacity

There are 72 functional ICMR laboratories in government sector for testing and 49 more will be active by the month-end, ICMR said. So the weekly random surveillance test will soon be carried out by a total of 121 labs. Around 60 private labs are also being roped in for Covid-19 testing, which should take total labs for testing in country to 181. Each lab has a capacity to provide a result for 90 samples per day, within six hours. This capacity could be doubled to 180 samples per day, the ICMR said.

The ICMR also said that they have tested more than 11,500 samples so far, including random sampling. The government currently has 1.5 lakh testing kits, and has ordered 1 million more.

It is to be noted that in countries like Canada, which have much higher case count of ~600, provinces like Ontario (which itself has 180 cases) are also not recommending testing of asymptomatic persons for COVID-19.

So while it is important to ask questions and expect accountability from the Government, we should understand our own country-specific context and listen to what experts with understanding of all facets of the situation have to say. Many left-liberal portals and even mainstream media op-eds have been hectoring the Government for alleged low testing numbers, and using metrics like tests per million to hint at Government apathy or worse, a ‘cover up’. Such media outlets should get off their high horses and stop peddling the anti-Modi doctrine atleast during this crisis.

Despite no evidence of community transmission thus far, it remains important for common public to take basic precautions, maintain social distance, stay at home as much as possible and avoid crowds.


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