As Covid spreads, ramping up RT-PCR testing capacity is crucial

As the global Covid toll surpassed 7,00,000 on Wednesday, with one person dying of the virus every 15 seconds over the past two weeks, in India the single day toll crossed 900 for the first time. While it is a comfort that the fatality rate has come down to 2.1%, new cases are rising rapidly.

It is important to note that the rise is no longer being fuelled by just Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu even though among these only Delhi has managed to bend the virus curve at this point.  The pandemic is now chasing other states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. Many of the new hotspots are much worse equipped than areas initially ravaged by the virus. It will need a lot of central coordination and support to fight the virus in the hinterlands.

Also read: 56,282 new cases push India’s Covid-19 count to 19,64,536; death toll mounts to 40,699

The two most important tools in this fight continue to be masks and tests. Encouraging and ensuring proper use of the first lies well within state capacities, and here it is the state and local administrations which must deliver. But on testing, especially RT-PCR testing which is the gold standard of Covid diagnosis, lab capacities need serious shoring up in many parts of the country. This must be done with central support.

The quicker antigen testing has a role but it is no substitute for RT-PCR testing.  As ICMR director-general Dr Balram Bhargava said on Tuesday, initially rapid antigen tests comprised only 5-6% of the total tests conducted in a day but now we have many states like Uttar Pradesh overwhelmingly relying on RATs. But as these tests can miss a seriously large number of asymptomatic cases, depending on them alone cannot help us curb virus transmission. Building infrastructure for RT-PCR tests may be tough. But there’s no running away from it.

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