Two health experts on Tuesday said they believed that community transmission of Covid-19, the communicable disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was happening in India and more patients needed to be tested to ascertain this.

Speaking at an event, Dr Gagandeep Kang, a community health expert, said it was likely that community transmission was taking place in India as there were cases of Covid-19 without known contact history. Kang is the executive director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, an autonomous body under the government’s Department of Biotechnology.

Kang said the extent of the community transmission is something that is not known yet. She said hospitals admitting large number of cases of severe respiratory infections could not be an indicator since hospitals “always function at [full] capacity”. “So it is difficult to test [for community transmission] until we start to get data from testing patients who are currently admitted with severe respiratory infections,” she added.

In the earlier stages of the pandemic, the Indian Council for Medical Research – the nodal health body for testing cases in the country – focused on tracing symptomatic cases with recent travel history abroad and those who came in contact with them. However, last week, as the number of cases grew, the Centre decided to test all hospitalised patients with severe acute respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

“The new testing regimen was liberalised only last week,” Kang said. “Laboratories were unable to test until the notifications went out over the weekend. In the next week or so, we will see a lot of laboratories ramping up tests and I hope they test all patients with severe acute respiratory infections that will give us a sense of how much is out there.”

Kang added: “Testing in community will give a sense and trajectory of how big the problem is and help us to create better informed response models.”

Another health expert, Shahid Jameel, said it was “unreasonable” to believe that community transmission is not happening in an outbreak of this nature, but “we are right now unable to measure it because we are not testing at scale”.

“It is really unreasonable to believe in an outbreak like this community transmission won’t happen,” Jameel said. “If you simply look at the numbers that are being reported at a daily basis, and see how steep the curve is becoming, it is hard to believe that community transmission is not happening. One hopes that there will be more reliable data in terms of numbers because in a country of our size, the testing really has been limiting.”