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Testing time for pathlabs as COVID cases soar

As the daily Covid-19 case load hit new highs, pathology laboratories are facing their toughest challenge to meet the soaring demand for the RT-PCR test to check for the infection.

Cities including Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Delhi are facing waiting periods of two-three days for sample collection and about four days for the report.

And this is due to a shortage of manpower at labs, limited lab networks and rush of people to get tested, say pathlabs.

Pathology laboratory chain SRL Diagnostics is seeing a dramatic surge in demand for tests over the past few weeks across the country. “As compared to February, the testing has almost tripled today which is largely owing to the spurt in new cases as well as travel-related requirements,” said Anand K, CEO, SRL Diagnostics. Many States have made a negative RT-PCR test mandatory to enter their borders. Also, the surge in daily new cases across major States, including Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, has prompted more people to get tested.

Daily testing
The Indian Council of Medical Research data show the daily testing has more than doubled in the past 45 days. But the testing infrastructure, despite being augmented, has not been able to keep pace with the demand as the second wave of infection hits the country.

A Ganesan, Group Vice-Chairman, Neuberg Diagnostics, said, “We are seeing the surge in demand from non-metros in States like Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In May-June last year, we were conducting 5,000-8,000 RT-PCR tests a day, which rose to about 18,000 a day during the last peak in September-October. Today, we are conducting almost 30,000 tests a day in 14 testing centers across India.”

In Karnataka, with tests stepped up to 1.33 lakh as on April 16 from 1.11 lakh on April, there has been delay in getting reports due to lack of manpower. This prompted the State government to intervene and K Sudhakar, State Health Minister, said, “It has come to my notice that there is delay in getting the Covid report. I have instructed the labs to give test reports within 24 hours of collecting the sample.”

Working overtime
Labs are working overtime to improve the turn-around-time for reports, by adding more equipment and manpower to improve capacities.

“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is the availability of manpower, especially for sample collection. We recruited a lot of people in the past one month anticipating a spike in May. But this wave is much severe than expected. We have started recruiting more people. Our labs are currently operating at 100 per cent capacity,” Ganesan told Businessline.

Typically, a lab needs 10-15 people for processing about 2,000-2,500 samples a day and if the lab has to run in double shift the number of people required increases to 25.

In Delhi, about one lakh tests are being done daily and 70 per cent of them are the gold standard RT-PCR tests.

“The positivity rate has risen in Delhi from 0.3 per cent to14 per cent or even higher. The biggest challenge currently for testing in India is that capacity is limited and cannot be increased rapidly as all machines for testing are imported and it takes a few weeks to get them and investments are limited due to a price cap on tests,” said Harsh Mahajan, President, NATHEALTH and Founder and Chief Radiologist, Mahajan Imaging.

Dr Lal PathLabs said, “At present, the demand for RT-PCR test has gone up exponentially and so has our testing. We are continuing to leverage our present infrastructure to best manage operations and Covid-19 test demand.”

Expanding lab network
The demand has prompted expansions. Neuberg is looking to add 10 more labs to its existing network of 14. Some of these will come up in the eastern and northern regions. In a novel experiment, its joint venture Neuberg-Supratech has launched a RT-PCR ‘Drive through’ testing in Ahmedabad in collaboration with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.

SRL is also focussing on hiring more lab technicians and phlebotomists and training them in sample collection and testing to manage the growing demand. “We already have 15 RT-PCR labs operational across the country and plan to add 5-6 more,” said Anand of SRL Labs.

Neuberg Diagnostics’ Ganesan said that even at the currently capped charges for the test, looking at the prolonged nature of the pandemic, the investment is recoverable within a year or so. The Hindu BusinessLine

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