The Joint Secretary of the Union Ministry of Health and Welfare, Lav Agarwal, during a press briefing on May 18, claimed that less than 2% of the population of the country has been infected by Covid-19 in the past 16 months.
He also lauded the continuous efforts of the Centre and state governments in coordination with the medical fraternity for containing the spread. “Despite the high number of cases reported so far, we have been able to contain the spread to under 2% of the population”, said Agarwal.
According to the data Agarwal presented, the percentage of the population infected with the virus stood at 1.8% with a total tally of 2.54 crore cases so far.
But the serological survey conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research and experts FactChecker spoke to point the other way.
The ICMR’s third and latest national serological survey, conducted between December 17, 2020, and January 8, showed that 21.4% of India’s adult population had Covid-19 by mid-December 2020. The medical research body surveyed 28,589 people aged 18 years and above. While in the age bracket of 10 years-17 years, 25.3% of those surveyed had Covid-19 antibodies.
Serological surveys are conducted through the collection of blood samples from the general population and are tested for IgG antibodies and if a person is IgG positive, it means that person has been exposed to SARS CoV-2 sometime in the past. The survey was conducted on 700 villages and wards from 70 districts of 21 states.
Urban slums and urban non-slums had a higher prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 than the rural areas with the percentage of the affected population being 31.7%, 26.2% and 19.1%, respectively.
This goes to show that Agarwal’s claim is misleading. Also, experts told Factchecker that for every single case confirmed by the laboratories and reported officially in India, there are 20-30 unconfirmed cases that were found by the serological survey.
“The quote put forth by Agarwal is disingenuous,” Dr T Sundararaman, ex-Executive Director, National Health Systems Resource Network, told FactChecker. “There are many asymptomatic cases and the testing conducted is not efficient in terms of their results. There needs to be a fourth round of a well-planned serological survey.”
FactChecker tried contacting Agarwal for a comment but did not receive any response.
The first and the second serological surveys conducted during May 2020-June 2020 and August 2020-September 2020 showed that 0.73% and 6.6% of the surveyed population had seroprevalence respectively.
“The appropriate number of tests are not getting conducted,” said Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, ex-president of AIIMS Resident Doctors’ Association and a specialist in geriatric medicine. “In many instances, it is seen that rapid antigen tests are being conducted which are not a reliable measure to check the infection due to the high rate of false negatives in their results. Serosurveys have pointed objectively towards a higher rate of infection. So, after that these kinds of claims by the government brings out non-transparency of governance which is misleading people.”
According to the data collected by Covid19India from different states, as of May 18, the Covid positivity rate stood at 8%, while the rate of active cases in the country stood at 12.6%. The fatality rate stood at 1.1%. This is based on the projected population of India, which stands at around 136 crore according to a National Commission On Population report. A total of 31.8 crore tests were conducted till May 18 and these figures are based on the data collected and compiled from January 30, 2020.
This article first appeared on FactChecker.in, a publication of the data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit IndiaSpend.