The government on Tuesday opened testing of coronavirus cases to private sector diagnostic laboratories in a move that’s expected to improve screening. Pricing has not been finalised, but the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has said it would appeal to the private chains to conduct tests at ‘’no cost’’ to the consumer.
According to officials, the price of the test could range between Rs 9,000 and Rs 12,000, depending on the type and quality of kit being used. “If reagent is available at Rs 3,000, the cost of test is Rs 9,000 without any margins,” said a private player.
Meanwhile, the shares of top diagnostic chains in the country shot up amidst volatile market conditions.
The stock of Dr Lal PathLabs ended the day at Rs 1,500 a piece, up 3 per cent, while Metropolis Healthcare rose 2.4 per cent. (see chart).
ICMR, the apex body for formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research, said it would activate 51 units authorised by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) for COVID-19 diagnosis. Already, 72 ICMR labs are doing the tests and another 49 new government labs would be activated by the end of this week, taking the total number to 121.
Balram Bhargava, head, ICMR, and secretary, Department of Health Research (DHR), said several private laboratories had approached the organisation to be of use at this time of an outbreak.
A worker sprays disinfectant inside the cabin of a Lion Air passenger jet as a precaution against the new coronavirus, at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia
ICMR plans to share the SoP and the positive controls with the labs. The private labs would have to share the information real time with state health departments for tracking and also contact tracing.
Once the labs have procured probes, primers and reagents required for the test and have their test kits validated by the National Institute of Virology, Pune, the ICMR would give them a go-ahead to run the tests. Around eight test kits are currently undergoing validation. Bhargava, however, urged the private sector players to conduct the tests for free.
"ICMR also strongly appeals that private laboratories should offer COVID-19 diagnosis at no cost. They have come forward to help as a national crisis. It is an appeal to them and not a condition," Bhargava said clarifying that he’s not talking on behalf of the government. He added that many people have assured that they would be able to give it for free. A Velumani, chairman of Thyrocare, believes that free testing is unlikely as the cost involved is high. He, however, said that if the government makes the reagents available to the diagnostic chains, the cost of the tests can come down for the common man.
"The raw material cost (reagents, primers and probes) is around 30 per cent of the test cost,’’ he said. Plus, there’s an additional cost of collection. “If the cost of testing is high, the number of screenings would automatically come down,’’ he said. Thyrocare is gearing up to do the tests in a week, at least in Maharashtra. Bhargava told reporters in Delhi that India had sufficient reagents and primers, but the probes were being imported. The government has placed an order for 1 million probes and plans to seek another million from the WHO. Also, two rapid testing laboratories are being activated soon. These could test up to 1,400 samples a day. The NIV, Pune, is also working on validating antibody-based tests and the first lot would be validated by the end of this week.
Velumani said that antibody-assay tests would be much faster and can yield results in an hour, The rapid tests can be used for initial screening. "If someone is exposed to the virus, before the onset of fever or with fever, he or she will show an increased value of immunoglobulin. If this is positive, the patient needs to go to the next step."
Rapid tests have slightly higher false positivity, but can be a great tool for screening mass populations. These cost one-fifth of that of a PCR test or molecular test. It’s possible that the number of COVID-19 positive patients would swell immediately after rapid tests are allowed, said people in the know.
Leading Delhi and Mumbai based diagnostic chains confirmed that talks are on with the government and that they can start doing the tests on ground, once the go ahead comes officially. Mumbai-based Metropolis Healthcare is one of them. Chairman Sushil Shah said that while pricing was not determined yet, Metropolis would do the tests for very low margins. "This is a national emergency, and we will not use this as an opportunity for profit making," he said.