Consider mass testing to find COVID 19 infected patients faster, suggests SRL Diagnostics CEO Arindam Haldar

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What is the capacity of SRL Diagnostics in case of testing COVID 19 patients?

ICMR has approved three of our laboratories to conduct these tests and we have already initiated testing at two of our reference laboratories in Mumbai and Gurgaon. Amongst private lab chains, SRL probably has the highest number of RT PCR machines installed across its system, and most of these laboratories are also NABL approved. Our immediate capacity is about 1,000 tests per day, which can be significantly scaled up two to three fold, if need arises. We are currently using a small fraction of this capacity.

Are there people coming to conduct other tests in your laboratories? Or your main business is completely hit?

Our business has been on a sharp decline since mid-March. With the recent lockdown declared, we are seeing walk-in and Home collection (B2C) being significantly affected. Also, logistical challenges to move samples around, with lockdown of inter state and intra state movement, stopping of OPD services and elective surgeries at hospitals and clinics, corporates working from home, etc. B2B business is also equally affected. However, the long term diagnostics story remains the same and this is more of a short term impact that we are currently experiencing. We also foresee some pent up demand due to lockdown.

There was some delay in recognising testing laboratories. How much has it hurt the fight against Covid 19?

The ICMR scientists had communicated that the government laboratories have enough capacity to test more suspected coronavirus samples. However, the private players were roped in irrespective, so it would be unfair to say there was a delay in recognising testing laboratories, at this time of national crisis. With the private sector coming in, the accessibility will increase drastically and it will prove vital in combating the disease. The decision to open up 124 government laboratories, 49 private laboratories and close to 16,000 collection points is in the right direction. The government’s efforts in a wide-spread country like India are commendable.

There has been a shortage in kits. But is it a hurdle right now? (Considering many people have not really come forward to test)

The private lab testing has just begun and it will definitely take a while for the supply chain to become smooth. Perhaps the biggest challenge currently is the lockdown, which means movement around the country is restricted. The other big challenge is the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We have not been able to extend our home collection services effectively due to shortage in PPE. We are doing tests in hundreds versus a capacity of thousands a day due to all of these challenges together.

Who is providing kits to SRL? And how many kits have you called for?

For private laboratories, the government has shared a list of approved kits/categories of approved kits. ICMR guidelines describe the kits that we can use in India for COVID-19 testing. We are in constant touch with various vendors – Altona, MYLAB, US FDA/CE IVD kit manufacturers – on current and future requirements. We have been able to procure some supplies which can last for a few days and are expecting further supplies soon.

If you want to encourage more people to come forward to take tests. Wouldn’t the price factor of the testing play a critical role? Isn’t Rs 4,500 expensive for Indian residing in slums?

The government has made sure various options are available to people. There are more than 100 laboratories of the government, where tests are done for free and then there are paying people who can come at the private laboratories as well. So I don’t think it is a limitation, because this anyway is a price-controlled test and it is just about the cost of conducting this test. As a matter of fact, the price for Swine Flu tests is almost the same, if anything then the cost of doing this test is slightly higher than doing the Swine Flu test. We do have patients who come in and do Swine Flu testing all the time, so I don’t see that as an issue.

We are conducting confirmatory tests at a government defined price of Rs 4,500 and not making any profit on this price.

How are you keeping your employees safe?

We have conducted several rounds of training for our technical staff and phlebotomist. The training is mainly focused at ensuring accurate testing, safety of patients and employees. This is a sensitive time and we need to ensure that people stay calm and adhere to the guidelines. The on-ground team has been provided with PPE to wear, while taking samples. We have introduced special incentives for the employees who are managing COVID-19 samples, like accommodations, food facility, and transport facility along with constant communication with them through emails and regular conversations. All our employees handling infectious samples have been given an additional medical insurance cover that not just covers the employee but also includes their spouse, dependent parents and children. In any unfortunate case, if any of our employees falls ill due to COVID 19 strain, all expenses linked to medical treatment will be borne by the company without any fail. We are continuously monitoring the situation and are looking at opportunities where we can help our staff.

What do you think the government should do more or any recommendations to the government?

The efforts of the Indian government should be applauded widely. At the very first level — unlike many countries, which long remained in denial mode — the Indian government was quick enough to activate its health management system and issue necessary travel advisories. Moreover, the state machinery — led by the Ministry of Health and other related agencies — were prompt enough to issue ‘valid precautionary guidelines’ to keep the public well-informed and prepared.

One of the key factors in tackling the spread of COVID-19 across the globe is testing. In South Korea, for example, mass testing has been used to try and quickly identify and isolate those with the disease. Testing is also vital to calculate accurate infection and survival rates — data that is critical for getting public safety measures right. India should test extensively, just as South Korea did. The only way you can control a disease like this is that you test early and you quarantine them.

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