Mumbai: Laboratories swamped with samples for Covid tests for patients, travellers

The surge in Covid-19 cases brought about by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and state guidelines mandating negative RT-PCR tests for those working in public transportation, home delivery services, film shoots, and roadside eateries, among other categories, likely led to a surge that created a backlog in several testing laboratories in Mumbai
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Published on Apr 13, 2021 01:22 AM IST
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ByJyoti Shelar, Mumbai

The surge in Covid-19 cases brought about by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and state guidelines mandating negative RT-PCR tests for those working in public transportation, home delivery services, film shoots, and roadside eateries, among other categories, likely led to a surge that created a backlog in several testing laboratories in Mumbai.

Recognising the delay caused in supplying these reports, Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal on Monday asked all the laboratories to issue reports to the municipal body within 24 hours. The civic body has also advised laboratories to enter data of the samples processed, between midnight to 6 am starting immediately, so that a considerable number of people can be given their results faster.

The state’s Break the Chain initiative issued on April 4, which mandated RT-PCR tests for the working-class starting April 10 (the tests would have been valid for 15 days only), was subsequently amended to allow antigen tests. However, several private labs across the city said that reports are now taking between two to three days, and samples collection has got delayed too.

“For three days last week, we had to completely stop taking new clients,” said Dr A Velumani, chairman and managing director of Thyrocare, a private company which began conducting RT-PCR tests in its laboratories last year. The reports are now taking 36 hours to be issued, as the company has seen a weekly jump of 20% in samples collected since mid-February. “In at least 100 cases last week, we have issued reports to travellers who were already at the airport to board flights,” he said.

“After the first wave passed, the volume had come down to 2000 samples a day, but it suddenly jumped to 15,000 a day this February when we entered the second wave,” he said. Thyrocare’s collection and testing capacity is 12,000 samples per day at present. By the second week of May, their labs will process 17000 samples a day, Velumani added.

Metropolis, another private laboratory in the city is doubling its capacity in a week’s time. However, its spokesperson did not provide data on the laboratory’s current testing capacity and how much it would be after the scale-up.

Between April 5 and April 10, the city has tested between 47,000 to 52,000 samples daily.

“Mumbai’s current RT-PCR testing capacity stands at 45,000,” said a civic official who did not wish to be named. “If the cases don’t increase further, this capacity is enough. During the first wave, the city’s daily testing capacity was 25,000,” the official added.

In June and July last year when Mumbai’s cases began to rise during the first wave of the pandemic, reports took up to 48 hours. However, as labs scaled up their facilities, reports were given within 24 hours.

“The RT-PCR processing takes about four hours. The transportation and data entry takes more time with a greater load of samples,” the official quoted above said, adding that data automation and early transportation can help save some time in between.

In Mumbai, testing follows a three-step process: collection of samples, processing in the laboratory and data entry in the software provided by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) last year mandated that only negative reports could be directly communicated to the patient. Positive reports are first communicated to the civic body, which, in turn, informs the patients. The rule allowed the civic body to conduct effective contact tracing as well as centralize the bed distribution system to ensure that patients don’t crowd hospitals and are treated based on their symptoms.

However, residents said that the rule has increased delays, and also led to greater anxiety among possible Covid patients.

City-based physician Dr Pratit Samdani said that most of the reports are now taking three to four days to reach patients, which is also causing difficulty in deciding the course of treatment. “Most doctors are initiating the treatment based on the clinical diagnosis. But the patients don’t isolate properly till they see a positive report and this is leading to more infections,” Samdani said.

Delayed results have also posed other problems for city residents. Thane-based commercial photographer Amit Rane (46) cancelled his flight to Bhubaneshwar twice last week after none of the laboratories could guarantee him a Covid-19 test report before he took off. “I felt helpless with all that was happening. I lost 16,000 on the flights in a week,” said Rane, who has rescheduled his photoshoot in Odisha, which like many other states is demanding negative RT-PCR reports from the 72-hour time frame from travellers. “The problem is that no laboratory is willing to give reports that soon,” said Rane. He finally booked his flight on April 14 after the private laboratory advised him to give his sample directly at their Navi Mumbai collection centre for quicker results.

Last March, Pune’s National Institute of Virology was the only laboratory equipped to test for Sars-CoV-2 in samples. Since then, Maharashtra has scaled up its testing capacity tremendously: from 339 laboratories in August to 476 in November and 487 in December. By March 2021, 524 laboratories are conducting tests in the city; of these, 383 are government-run. These numbers provided by the public health department include laboratories carrying out RT-PCR as well as antigen tests. In Mumbai, around 43 private and 10 public-run laboratories are testing samples.

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