Coronavirus: How will govt ‘test’ over 43,000 China-returned travellers?

NIV in Pune currently has reagents to test only 5,000 people

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Thursday 30 January 2020

The Union government on January 30, 2020, announced it would test all those who flew into India from China since January 15. It also confirmed the first positive case of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Kerala on the same day.

The blood samples of all such people will be collected and sent to laboratories, a public relations official of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told Down To Earth (DTE).

All those who had landed from any part of China, and not just Wuhan city —  the epicentre of the outbreak — would be tested for the presence of the virus, the official added.

The exact number of people who landed in India from China after January 15 is not immediately clear. However, as many as 43,346 passengers from 234 flights have been screened since January 17, according to a government press statement issued on January 30. Screening is being done at 21 Indian airports at the moment.

Where is the equipment?

Sampling the blood of 43,346 people should require a high number of reagents (substances used in chemical analyses) and paraphernalia. 

Adequate lab reagents are available with the National Institute of Virology (NIV) at Pune to test 5,000 samples according to the January 30 statement. It remains unclear as to how the remaining samples will be checked.

A health ministry official told DTE that six more government labs in Bengaluru, New Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala would be augmented for testing and that they will work under the NIV. The official also said there was no centralised data to suggest the total capacity of these labs. 

This reporter was then directed to speak to the director of National Centre for Disease Control Sujeet K Singh. On being contacted, Singh said he was busy.

DTE had also sent a detailed questionnaire to NIV Pune Director Priya Abraham on January 29, inquiring about various technology parameters as well as the number of kits available with the institute.

While all queries were answered, the reply to the one on the number of kits was unclear. NIV said that “adequate contingency for testing was available”. A follow-up mail asking the same question remains unanswered even now. This, when the Union government had not even made the January 30 announcement. 

While many countries are screening passengers at their respective airports, none has so far announced that passengers landing from China will get their blood samples tested. The screening done at airports involves checking body temperature of the patients through scanners.

Infection from any virus leads to a rise in body temperature. 

The January 30 announcement, along with a slew of other measures was made after a video conference between the Union cabinet secretary and chief secretaries of all states and Union territories. He also reviewed preparedness with the ministries of health and family welfare, external affairs, defence, home affairs, civil aviation, information and broadcasting, labour and employment as well as shipping. 

The cabinet secretary also emphasised on 14 days' isolation at homes for all those who have returned from China. State governments have been advised to open control rooms and appoint a nodal officer. The awareness activities regarding symptoms of the infection and ways to prevent it are also being escalated. 

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