2 labs which held fake tests during Kumbh still on ICMR approved list
Two laboratories that allegedly made fake entries for Covid-19 tests during the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar district in April continue to be on the Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR’s) list of approved labs released on Thursday.
Allegations of fake testing at the Kumbh surfaced in late April after a Faridkot resident complained to the authorities that he received a message for collecting his Covid-19 report despite never having been tested. The complaint triggered a probe that unearthed roughly 100,000 fake rapid antigen tests.
Three firms – Delhi-based Lalchandani Labs, Hisar-based Nalwa Labs and Noida-based private agency Max Corporate Services – were booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code, disaster management act and epidemic diseases act last week. Days later, all three firms approached the high court separately to quash the FIR and denied the charges.
At present, three separate probes are looking into the allegations — one by the police, one by the district administration and one by the mela administration.
Max Corporate Services, which was recruited by the Uttarakhand government and outsourced the testing to the accused labs, is not a laboratory and was never recognised by the ICMR.
No laboratory can conduct Covid-19 testing without being recognised by the ICMR, which provides the login ID and password to all approved labs for the national portal, where all test results have to be mandatorily uploaded. The data is then used by local health teams to carry out control measures such as creating containment zones, tracing and testing contacts, and isolating those who test positive.
“ICMR is not a regulatory authority and does not have much control over the private laboratories. ICMR just gives approval to labs for conducting Covid-19 tests based on the kind of facilities that they have and ensures that they upload the test reports to the portal. Other than that, ICMR has no control over how the labs operate,” said a senior official from the country’s apex medical research body, which has assumed the role of an additional regulator for approving Covid-19 test kits and laboratories.
The ICMR’s approval to laboratories for conducting Covid-19 tests is conditional to them having a certification from the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL), which is a constituent board of the Quality Council of India.
According to people aware of the developments, the NABL, too, has not yet acted against the accused laboratories. The certification of Dr Lalchandani lab is valid till July 2022, whereas that of Nalwa Labs was valid till August 2020 and was extended for another year till the end of the month.
HT didn’t receive a comment from NABL CEO Venkateswaran despite several attempts.
Director and CEO of Dr Lalchandani laboratory, Mohit Lalchandani, said 12,000 of the 100,000 tests conducted by his lab during the Kumbh are being verified.
“We had signed an MoU with Max Corporate Services and accordingly deployed people at testing sites between April 1 and 28. We had no direct contract with the Uttarakhand government. We deployed sufficient manpower there. We have submitted bills for the kits, the tents, and the details of the health department and police personnel posted at the testing sites to all investigating agencies,” he said.
So far, the laboratory has received no payments from Max Corporate Services for the tests conducted, he added.
Director of Nalwa labs, Dr JPS Nalwa, said, “We did get into an MoU with the Max Corporate Services, but they have not communicated with us since... We never sent anyone to conduct tests and got the first hint of a problem when a person contacted us saying that he received a message about the test but wasn’t even in Haridwar. My son, Navtej, immediately wrote a letter cancelling the MoU.”
Asked how the lab’s ID appeared on the report, he said that his data entry operators were not tech-savvy and did not know how this could have happened. “The government officials generated the SRF ID locally from Haridwar,” he said.
An SRF ID refers to a specimen referral ID generated by the sample collector, who eventually selects a laboratory from the ICMR’s list. However, according to at least two pathology lab owners who conduct RT-PCR tests in Delhi, once a lab is selected, the SRF ID will reflect on its dashboard. A test report, carrying a laboratory’s ID, cannot be generated without entering their login and password, one of the pathology lab owners added.
Cabinet minister and Uttarakhand government spokesperson Subodh Uniyal said, “A probe is already on in the matter by a special investigation team (SIT) of Haridwar district police. Strict action would be taken against anyone found involved of the irregularities.”
The main accused in the case and owners of Max Corporate Services agency, are on the run. Their counsel could not be connected for a comment despite several attempts.