Kolkata: West Bengal’s Covid-19 testing numbers have seen a quantum jump over the last week, ever since the Inter Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) landed in the state on 20 April. But the state continues to have one of the worst testing records.
From a dismal 51 tests per million population before the team arrived, the state is now testing 135 people per million population as of 28 April, according to an analysis of official figures.
Senior virologists told ThePrint West Bengal’s testing is perhaps the lowest in the country and they warn it is not possible for any government or agency to understand the trend of the virus in the region with such low numbers. They also said Bengal should have reached at last 350 to 400 tests per million by now but the state is not even halfway there yet.
The fourth most populous state in the country now ranks in the bottom three, slightly above Mizoram and Manipur, shows data analysis done by The Hindu. According to the report, which takes into account data until 29 April, the state is testing 148.2 people per million population. The testing figures for Mizoram and Manipur, the only two states ranking below Bengal, are 146.5 and 146, respectively.
West Bengal has a population of almost 9.8 crore (according to the 2011 census, the population was 9.12 crore, which was projected to rise to 9.8 crore in 2019) and it is one of the most densely populated states in India with an estimated 1,043 people living in a square kilometre. In comparison, Mizoram has a population of 12.85 lakh while Manipur’s estimated population is around 13 lakh. According to central government figures, Mizoram has reported only one case as of 29 April and Manipur two (both have recovered).
As of 28 April, according to the official figures, West Bengal tested 13,223 samples, with 1,180 tests conducted in the last 24 hours.
In contrast, Odisha, with half of Bengal’s population, had tested 26,687 samples as of April 27 at a rate of 585 per million. Jharkhand, which has a third of Bengal’s population, tested 9,922 samples as of 27 April, at a rate of 261 per million.
Even Bihar, which has a slightly higher population than Bengal, has fared better, having tested 19,790 samples at a rate of 160 per million population.
Even with the lower testing figures, the state is among the worst affected in the region. West Bengal has 725 cases with 22 deaths as of 29 April, far higher than the numbers in Bihar (366 cases, 2 deaths), Odisha (118 cases, 1 death) and Jharkhand (103 cases, 3 deaths).
The state also has four districts in the red zone with a total of 348 containment zones.
Mamata Banerjee blames Centre for faulty kits
Bengal’s numbers had been even more dismal before the central team landed in the state. From 200 to 240 tests a day, the state is now testing 1,100 samples a day.
As of 27 April, Delhi was testing almost 2,000 per million population, followed by Tamil Nadu (1,230) and Gujarat (825).
West Bengal Principal Secretary (Health) Vivek Kumar said the state will increase testing by the end of this week.
“Our testing numbers are constantly increasing. We are now averaging 1,000 tests per day. This is expected to increase,” he said. “Ten government medical colleges and two private ones are awaiting ICMR clearance for testing labs. Also, two more ICMR approved private labs in Kolkata are expected to start tests by the end of this week.”
West Bengal now has 14 testing laboratories, which includes ICMR’s nodal agency National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) that is based in Kolkata.
“The figures were initially low because there was only one approved lab until the first week of March. Also, the faulty RT PCR kits that came from the first week of April started to throw disproportionately high numbers of ambiguous results, requiring us to run the samples twice. This too set us back,” Kumar added.
“ICMR finally took back those kits on 22 April. Also, as many as five government labs recently sanctioned by ICMR have only started operations in the last week.”
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too blamed the ‘faulty testing’ kits for low testing numbers in the state.
On 22 April, addressing the media at Nabanna, Banerjee said, “There are three types of kits — rapid testing kits, RT PCR kits, and antigen kits. RT PCR kits have been withdrawn in line with the email from NICED received yesterday. Antigen KITS are not available in Bengal hospitals.”
She added, “All rapid testing kits sent to our state have been withdrawn. Our health department had made previous orders, but we do not know when we will receive them. Timely tests need to be conducted or people might die. There is a medium needed to transport the samples of testing. The supplier is ICMR and NICED, and we don’t have enough mediums. I am not understanding the planning (of the central government).”
3 types of ICMR supplied COVID-19 test kits & their present status in Bengal:
1. Rapid testing kits -They are being held back on account of poor functioning as per ICMR advisory
2. BGI RT PCR kits -They are being withdrawn as per communication from NICED on 21st Apr (1/2)
— Department of Health & Family Welfare, West Bengal (@wbdhfw) April 22, 2020
ThePrint had contacted Dr Asit Biswas, Bengal’s nodal officer for Covid testing, for a comment but said he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Bengal is just not testing enough: Experts
Experts on the ground said the state is just not testing enough people.
“The number of tests in Bengal should have reached 25,000 to 30,000 by now. The state has got laboratories like NICED and School of Tropical Medicine. These two labs alone can test more than 600 samples per day,” Professor Nemai Bhattacharya, former head of virology department in School of Tropical Medicine, told The Print.
“We started testing very late. These two labs have set up molecular testing,” he added. “About the faulty kits, we can say that RT PCR works well in these institutes and if some RNA extraction kits were missing or faulty, the state could have procured them.”
Senior virologist Dr. Amitabha Nandy said the per million data would not be of any help until the government reaches the community levels and starts active surveillance.
“As of now, we are seeing passive testing. The patients or suspects are coming to hospitals, their swabs taken and tested. But in this situation, the department teams should reach communities and start random testing. Only then the curve, whether rising or fattening, can be understood,” he said. “If the rapid test kits are not working, the swab samples can be taken and tested at RT PCR machines in the laboratories. But for that state needs trained people and resources.”