Mahrashtra: Four private labs get ICMR approval, more to follow soon

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On Sunday, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) gave its approval to the four private labs to start procuring kits and test samples from suspected COVID-19 cases.(Representational Photo)

Four private laboratories Thyrocare, HN Reliance and Research Centre, Suburban Diagnostics and Metropolis Healthcare have got the approval to start conducting coronavirus (COVID-19) tests in Mumbai from Sunday. At least 20 more laboratories in the city have applied and are awaiting approval.

Until now, Maharashtra was conducting tests at six government laboratories two in Mumbai, one in Nagpur and three in Pune. With the four private labs, the state’s testing capacity is set to double from an average of 1,000 tests per day.

On Sunday, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) gave its approval to the four private labs to start procuring kits and test samples from suspected COVID-19 cases. The central government has capped testing prices at Rs 4,500. These labs can only test patients with a travel history abroad and with symptoms such as cough, cold, fever and breathlessness, or people who have been exposed to confirmed COVID-19 cases. Thyrocare, Suburban Diagnostics and Metropolis have a capacity of 200 tests each per day, and HN Reliance can do 100 tests per day.

As the approvals were given, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a notification allowing a person with an MSc degree in microbiology or medical biochemistry and with three years of lab experience to sign the diagnostic reports. Until now, only an MD in microbiology or biochemistry could sign the reports. This will allow private labs to add manpower for testing for COVID-19. At the moment, India has a tiny pool of MDs for laboratory analysis.

The four laboratories will need three to four days to set up the infrastructure and begin testing. Officials from the state public health department said each laboratory had to procure enough kits, prepare a protocol and have adequate manpower to handle the daily load.

Dr Sujata Baveja, head of microbiology in KEM Hospital, said ICMR, the apex medical research institute, will give permission to more laboratories in the coming days. “These laboratories need Food and Drug Administration licence and National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories certificate. Government laboratories will get kits from ICMR. Private labs will have to procure them on their own,” Baveja said. KEM, which began testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from Wednesday is doing 100 tests per day.

Other government laboratories functioning as of now are Kasturba laboratory (Mumbai), BJ Medical College (Pune), Indira Gandhi Medical College (Nagpur), National Institute of Virology (NIV-Pune), NIV’s field unit in Mumbai, and Armed Forces Medical College (Pune). Other private laboratories that have applied are Hinduja hospital (200 samples per day), SRL (250) and Fortis hospital. The state government is also going to begin testing at Haffkine Institute and JJ hospital soon. A scale up to all medical colleges equipped with laboratories may also be done in future if the demand for tests rises.

At present, the state is not even reaching its full capacity for testing. World Health Organization has mandated its formula — “test, test and test” — to diagnose more and coronavirus cases and isolate them from the masses. The tests in India are limited to symptomatic people with foreign travel, close contacts of patients, symptomatic healthcare workers and patients with acute respiratory distress.

“We may slowly open up private testing for asymptomatic people based on government directives. Right now, patients will be referred to private labs for testing by the civic body,” said a BMC official.