COVID-19: PM Modi to address nation today, random tests to include more pneumonia cases

Abantika Ghosh
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the nation on Thursday at 8 pm to talk about steps being taken against the virus. (File)

India is looking at expanding the pool of random testing samples for COVID-19 to include patients with atypical pneumonia, which presents symptoms slightly different from pneumonia. WHO country representative Dr Henk Bekedam told The Indian Express that India does need to test more, and is already moving in that direction by looking at atypical pneumonia patients.

On Wednesday, the number of positive cases rose to 151. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the nation on Thursday at 8 pm to talk about steps being taken against the virus. This was announced at a review meeting he chaired on Wednesday evening.

The government also ordered the CBSE, National Institute of Open Learning and all higher education institutions to postpone ongoing examinations for 10 days. Following the order, the CBSE postponed Board examinations scheduled from March 19 to March 31, including re-exams scheduled for students in Northeast Delhi affected by the recent riots.

The Board will announce the new schedule by the end of the month after “re-assessment of the situation”.

The National Testing Agency, too, put JEE (Main), scheduled to be held on Apri 5, 7, 8 and 9, on hold. JEE (Main) is the entrance examination for admission to National Institutes of Technology.

Random sampling of atypical pneumonia cases would be an expansion from random tests being done currently of patients in ICU with severe respiratory illnesses and influenza-like symptoms, to check for community transmission.

Amidst coronavirus fears, Marine Drive in Mumbai wears a deserted look on Wednesday. (Express photo: Prashant Nadkar)

In an interview, Dr Bekedam said, “I understand that India is already considering increasing the scope to include atypical pneumonia patients, people showing signs of severe acute respiratory infection. This is something similar to what was done at the time of SARS.” Dr Bekedam served in China at the time of SARS in 2003.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Wednesday said 300 more of the 1,020 random samples it had taken in March for testing across the country for community transmission had tested negative. On Tuesday, it said the first batch of results for 500 samples were negative. The results of the remaining 220 samples will be available on Thursday.

Earlier, another batch of random tests, done uptil February 29, had come out negative.

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Prayagraj: Students wear masks in the wake of deadly coronavirus after appearing in their board examination, at an examination centre, in Prayagraj

At the review meeting Wednesday, PM Modi stressed on actively engaging with individuals, local communities and organisations to check COVID-19. He also expressed his gratitude to all those at the forefront of combating the virus, including state governments, the medical fraternity, paramedical staff, armed and paramilitary forces, and aviation and municipal staff.

The US’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines atypical pneumonia as showing up slightly different from typical pneumonia in chest X-rays, and responding differently to the antibiotics used for typical bacteria. During the 2013 SARS outbreak, the WHO had issued a global alert on atypical pneumonia.

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“Today we had some discussions on how to engage private players to conduct testing as well. We spoke to one or two who have ordered probes (kits) or will be ordering,” ICMR Senior Scientist Nivedita Gupta said.

“But my bigger worry is that even though states have come forward to say they have labs that we can utilise, I don’t have time to conduct an on-site inspection. What I am telling them is to send me photos and videos to see their capacity, and I am asking them if they have handled respiratory illnesses. In the urge to expand, I shouldn’t enter a domain where they don’t understand bio-safety and bio-security. There may be contamination or false positives, or even case of infection of a laboratory worker,” she said.

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At the quarantine facility in Manesar set up by the army. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav/File)

Earlier, in an interview to The Indian Express, Gupta had argued against testing anybody showing symptoms, saying, “Till date, we have not documented community transmission. Why should we go on telling people who have no history of travel or any contact with an actual case (to get themselves tested)?... The incubation period ranges from two to 14 days. If someone has long incubation but tests negative, doesn’t that give a false sense of security and the test is meaningless?... And, in this process, in a huge country like India, I’m not able to test people who genuinely may need testing because I’m wasting it on futile testing. Secondly, right now, we are stressing on home quarantine. But, if I test an individual who is asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic and he is positive, he would be requesting to be put in a hospital... In a country like this, how many isolation beds, how many places does the government have for this?”

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Gupta said the government was sticking to the strategy deployed during the Zika virus outbreak in Jaipur. “We did aggressive, house-to-house testing, even for asymptomatic individuals. That kind of aggressive containment strategy will be enforced wherever we see community transmission. For the whole country, I cannot put in place those aggressive measures.”