The World Health Organisation on Monday urged all countries to ramp up their coronavirus testing to try to reduce the severity of the pandemic, Reuters reported. However, Indian authorities continue to defend the country’s restrictive testing policy, which has resulted in among the lowest testing rates in the world. Until March 13, fewer than 6,000 people had been tested in India.
“We have a simple message to all countries – test, test, test,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva. He warned that the coronavirus pandemic is a “defining global health crisis of our time”.
The best approach to contain the disease is to identify people with infections and rapidly isolate them, Tedros said. He said this strategy had shown positive effects in China, South Korea and Singapore.
Tedros stressed that all the countries should be able to test all the suspected cases, adding that “they cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded”. He added that cases cannot be isolated and the chain of infection will not be broken with limited testing.
The virus has infected 182,406 people, and killed 7,154 worldwide, according to an estimate from John Hopkins University, which is tracking cases reported by the World Health Organization and additional sources.
In India, coronavirus has so far caused two deaths and infected at least 125 people. Many experts fear the number of infected people may be much higher – the Indian government may have simply failed to detect them because of its limited testing.
The Indian government has restricted coronavirus tests to only those with recent travel history to affected countries or those known to have come in contact with confirmed cases and with symptoms of the disease. Experts say such limited testing could lead to cases of community transmission, which cannot be traced to a known confirmed case, going undetected. India has among the lowest testing rates in the world.
The Indian Council for Medical Research has decided to monitor community transmission by random sampling rather than expanding testing to those without travel and contact history. Nivedita Gupta, senior scientist in charge of viral diseases at the Indian Council for Medical Research, told The Indian Express that the decision has been taken to avoid “futile testing” given the size of the country.
“The incubation period [for the virus] ranges from 2 to 14 days,” Gupta said. “If someone has a long incubation period, but tests negative, doesn’t that give a false sense of security to them when the test is meaningless? And then, if I tell people I cannot say if you are positive or negative, that person is going to want to get tested again and again. 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,”
Gupta continued: “If I test an individual who is asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and he is positive, then he would be requesting to be put in a hospital, saying to isolate me and you take care of me. Then what do I do? In a country like this, how many isolation beds, how many places does the government have for this?”
The health ministry has maintained that India has not experienced any “community transmission” or cases that cannot be traced to known patients. However, the health ministry has now stopped giving the details of the travel and contact history of most of the confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.
Gupta said expanding coronavirus testing is not rational in a country like India. “Our testing capacity is close to 6,000 tests per day,” she added. “We have 1.5 lakh test kits and have ordered 1 million. Right now our inclusion criteria is only symptomatic travelers and symptomatic contacts of lab-confirmed infected.”