India gunning for self-reliance and cheaper kits amid rise in asymptomatic coronavirus cases

Residents of a slum lining up to get groceries distributed on the banks of the Yamuna river in New Delhi yesterday, amid a nationwide lockdown. India is aiming for 40,000 Covid-19 tests a day. PHOTO: REUTERS

In January, when a laboratory in China shared the first genome coronavirus sequence, Mr Sankarapandian Selvaraj started work on an indigenous test kit in the southern city of Chennai in India, which that month recorded its first virus case.

His firm, Helini Biomolecules, had a kit ready by March, by which time a stringent lockdown was in place, making it difficult to send the diagnostic test for government validation.

It was only in mid-April that the firm, along with a few others, was given permission to make real-time polymerase chain reaction test kits that can produce results in six to eight hours. The kits rely on molecular tests for Covid-19 using nasal and throat swabs.

Mr Selvaraj has since been inundated with requests from state governments. He said the company will send out the first batch of 20,000 test kits by May 4, with production to hit 50,000 tests every week after the lockdown is lifted on May 3.

"We can manage Indian demand. Not only me but all the other Indian manufacturers," he said.

Other Indian firms like Mylab Discovery Solutions, the first to distribute indigenous kits at the end of March, are looking at increasing production from 150,000 to two million test kits a week.

India has conducted 770,764 tests as of Tuesday, and recorded 31,787 Covid-19 cases with 1,008 deaths.

It is aiming for 40,000 tests a day.

India had relied on imported kits from a number of countries including Singapore, which supplied 70,000 test kits through the Temasek Foundation, and 30,000 through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, according to the Indian High Commission in Singapore.

But federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Tuesday that India would be self-reliant by the end of next month.

This came after the Indian Council of Medical Research decided against continuing with Chinese rapid test kits due to what it described as underperformance.

"There is a need for increased testing. So I was surprised, it (indigenous manufacturing) has taken so long. We should work on this expeditiously," said former health secretary K. Sujatha Rao.

Meanwhile, a low-cost test kit for the poor, created by the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, has been approved. It costs between 750 rupees (S$14) and 800 rupees to get tested with the kit, compared with the 4,500 rupees that some other tests can cost.

At the CSIR - Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, in the southern city of Hyderabad, scientists are working on a way to test 10,000 to 20,000 samples at one go.

"If everything goes well, it can be done in about two weeks, not counting health department time to accept and adopt it," said Dr Rakesh Kumar Mishra, the centre's director.

"There is certainly a need to enhance testing, particularly because in India, we are getting more asymptomatic cases. We need at least 10 times more (than now)."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline India gunning for self-reliance and cheaper kits amid rise in asymptomatic coronavirus cases. Subscribe