“We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test,” World Health Organisation (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva earlier this week.
He was alluding to the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 10,000 people and infected nearly 250,000 in at least 159 countries.
“All countries should be able to test all suspected cases, they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded,” he said.
With 182 reported infections and four deaths so far, is India taking this advice seriously? Is the world’s second-most populous country testing enough?
The jury is out on this one. India had tested some 14,175 people in 72 state-run labs as of Thursday evening – one of the lowest testing rates in the world. The reason: the country has limited testing. So, only people who have been in touch with an infected person or those who have travelled to high-risk countries, or health workers managing patients with severe respiratory disease and developing Covid-19 symptoms are eligible for testing.
Why is a densely populated country with more than a billion people testing so little? The official assumption is the disease has still not spread in the community. As early “evidence” health authorities say 826 samples collected from patients suffering from acute respiratory disease from 50 government hospitals across India between 1 and 15 March tested negative for coronavirus. Also, hospitals have not yet reported a spike in admissions of respiratory distress cases.
“It is reassuring that at the moment there is no evidence of community outbreak,” says Balram Bhargava, director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He believes Mr Ghebreyesus’s advice is “premature” for India, and it would only “create more fear, more paranoia and more hype”.
But experts are not so sure.
Many of them believe India is also testing below scale because it fears that its under-resourced and uneven public health system could be swamped by patients. India could be buying time to stock up on testing kits and add isolation and hospital beds. “I know mass testing is not a solution, but our testing appears to be too limited. We need to quickly expand to restrict community transmission,” K Sujatha Rao, former federal health secretary and author of But Do We Care: India’s Health System, told me.