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ICMR to expand Covid-19 testing, antibody tests being developed in Indian labs

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New Delhi: Addressing the need for more diagnostic tests to identify people infected with the novel coronavirus, K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the government, has said the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is amplifying test sites and more laboratories are being opened to conduct tests across states.

VijayRaghavan took to Twitter Sunday night to share what scientists in India are doing on Covid-19 and what their efforts are likely to lead to.

According to R Gangakhedkar of the ICMR, 34,931 tests were conducted for the contagion as of Sunday.

“Capacity utilisation in the ICMR network is around 30 per cent. We have increased the number of laboratories, 113 have been made functional and 47 private laboratories have been given the approval to conduct COVID-19 tests,” he told the media. 

‘Efforts to increase test capacity being evaluated’

Many have pointed out that India is conducting too few tests. The tests are limited only to those with travel and contact histories — a protocol that will not allow India to identify whether community transmission has occurred.

Media reports show states that have tested more people have detected more cases.

“Efforts to increase test capacity by the ‘pooling’ of samples are being evaluated. This is not simple and needs the development and testing of optimisation algorithms so that one positive in a large pool is not missed,” VijayRaghavan wrote in his Twitter thread.

He also added that new tests, which look for “traces of the virus having visited a person”, are being developed in Indian laboratories.

Testing the blood serum for antibodies — or proteins produced by the body to fight the coronavirus — can be useful as an initial test, even if it is cruder than the ‘gold-standard’ reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which are currently being used to diagnose Covid-19 patients.

Indian researchers are also embarking on research projects on serological research studies that could inform about the extent and distribution of infection and immunity, he added.

“There are two requirements for success. The first is a shared sense of purpose with our people, all humanity, particularly the poor and vulnerable. The second is the ability to take well-thought-out steps. Both are needed to push back the disease. Our scientists have both,” VijayRaghavan wrote.

‘For success, we must be relentless’

“We have a powerful enemy designed, by chance, over millions of years. It is powerful but unintelligent. Its ways are getting better known each day. For success, we must be relentless, use our science at the right time and place and act intelligently and not randomly,” he posted in one of the tweets.

VijayRaghavan added that the scientists are addressing all aspects of the disease, such that the efforts to fight the disease are “never fatigued, but the virus is”.

He also pointed out that through global initiatives, such as those spearheaded by G-20 and SAARC, the world has come together to fight Covid-19. Such efforts are important to address the supply of essential components and chemicals for testing, diagnosis, and treatment.

He added that the scientists and the industry are helping empower health workers on the frontline.

“The health ministry has put in place training, or doctors, nurses, other frontline workers including ASHA and Anganwadi workers. And our IT+health research institutions have come together with industry for components that allow this to scale,” he wrote.

‘Every potential glitch needs to be anticipated’

During this crisis, VijayRaghavan said, every potential glitch needs to be anticipated. The scientists at the Union ministries of health and electronics and IT have linked with every level in the health system.

“Our start-up and incubators have been astounding. They have been working on the highest end drug- repurposing, using AI to predict targets, to making equipment and tools for treatment,” he said.

“Our industry is working on vaccines, re-purposing, critical-care treatment and partnering with academia and start-ups. The intensity of their pro bono efforts with Government is also impressive,” he added.

Similarly, NGOs are also working with ‘state- and central- governments’, VijayRaghavan said.

“We sometimes are critical of our institutions, industry, saying that they are not connected enough to society. Today we see something inspiring. Mathematicians, biologists, clinicians, industry IT; coming together intelligently with health professionals, taking on leadership,” he said.

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