India has the ability to aggressively ramp up coronavirus testing capacity, a move that will help it check a wave of new active cases hitting hospitals and skirt an economically unviable lockdown, according to the head of one of the country’s largest drug makers.
With pooled testing that can include as many as 10 people in one go, India “could potentially scale up its testing 10-fold,” said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the founder and chairman of Biocon Ltd. Pooled testing increases the number of people that can be tested using the same amount of resources but it works well in clusters with low prevalence. Shaw suggested using this technique in combination with the more prevalent rapid antigen and RT-PCR tests.
“We are way below the testing levels of other countries,” she said at the Bloomberg India Economic Forum on Thursday. “We need to ramp up our testing -- the number of active cases are manageable at this point of time, but if the active cases start surging we simply don’t have the capacity.”
India, which in March imposed the largest nationwide lockdown globally in response to the pandemic, was taken by surprise by the surging number of infections when it started removing the restrictions, Mazumdar-Shaw said. Now more than 7 million people in the South Asian nation have been infected with Covid-19 -- the second largest outbreak in the world.
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With about 830 tests per million, India’s current virus testing rates are among the lowest in the world, according to most recent data from Johns Hopkins University. The steady rise in cases is making it harder for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revive an economy that shrank 24% in the quarter ended June.
“We are going about it in an ad-hoc manner, opinions count and science is not being looked at rationally,” said Mazumdar-Shaw, 67, who in August was infected with Covid-19 and experienced mild symptoms. She advocated early diagnosis to treat the infection and recover faster.
Fortunately, India has a youthful population that has kept fatalities low, she said, along with a large vaccine production capacity with multiple firms currently holding clinical trials. The biggest challenge for the country will be building up cold chain logistics to distribute vaccines across India in a short period of time, Mazumdar-Shaw said.
“I do hope by the end of November that we are able to say we have a plan” and digital platforms to help roll out vaccines, she said.
The race to develop an inoculation against Covid-19, involving developers in more than 30 countries, has fostered cross-border collaboration and high-stakes competition. Modi’s administration had promised an indigenous vaccine as early as mid-August, a claim the government and its apex medical research body has since walked back.
By year end or January “a few” vaccine emergency use authorizations will likely be approved by different regulators, including India’s, Mazumdar-Shaw said. Quantities will be scarce at first, “but will ramp up very quickly,” she said.
Still, public health specialists have warned that vaccine nationalism could result in the pandemic lasting longer, by preventing the most efficient allocation of shots to prevent Covid-19. Some countries are trying to buy the first place in line for supplies in the event an experimental vaccine proves effective, even though many have signed upto an access collaboration called COVAX.
“Unfortunately, it is likely to play out in an unfair way -- countries are becoming very self-centered,” Mazumdar-Shaw said. “It doesn’t protect you from your neighboring country which isn’t vaccinated -- this is a global pandemic, we are all in it together, we need to be a collective force.”