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ICMR data shows India’s Covid testing is not in right shape — 5 things that need fixing

ICMR has released its first data analysis of more than 10 lakh Covid-19 tests. But this data only tells us that there is a lot the Modi govt still doesn't know.

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The Indian Council of Medical Research on Saturday released its first data analysis of more than 10 lakh Covid-19 tests it conducted between 22 January and 30 April, of which over 40,000 were positive cases.

The analysis of this data contains five important lessons for India on how to move forward in terms of identifying and testing coronavirus positive persons.

Also read: India’s coronavirus fight lacks the most crucial thing in its arsenal — Data

Revive contact tracing

Unknown to most people, but now revealed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) data, India’s contact tracing faltered a long time ago.

Of the 10 lakh plus people tested until 30 April, the mode of Covid-19 transmission is not known for 57 per cent of them. And of the 40,184 people who tested positive, the Narendra Modi government does not know how 44 per cent of them got infected, the ICMR has revealed. Worryingly, this number has only grown over time.

Coronavirus disease 2019 cases by source of exposure and date of sample collection, India, January 22 – April 30, 2020 | Source: Indian Journal of Medical Research

Compare this with South Korea, where the government updates citizens every day with anonymised information about the contacts of each new confirmed case; as of 30 May, just 9 per cent of South Korea’s Covid-19 cases have not yet been linked to existing cases, according to data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This applies even to newly discovered cases — just 7 per cent of the cases recorded in the last two weeks are still under investigation, while the source of infection in the rest of the cases has been identified.

New cases (for last two weeks) by chain of transmission | Source: Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)

Also read: ICMR to review ‘wonder’ drug combo used to treat Covid patients in Bangladesh

Push lagging states forward

Some states are struggling particularly hard with contact tracing. In Bihar and Odisha, the source of transmission is unknown for over 80 per cent of the people tested over three months, a clear indication that they are failing at contact tracing.

Without strong contact tracing, these states will be flying blind the next few months, unable to anticipate clusters and unsure where to direct testing resources.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Even relatively developed by high Covid-burden states such as Maharashtra and union territory Delhi are not doing enough contact tracing. Maharashtra, on average, tested 2.3 people per confirmed case and Delhi 2.1. Karnataka, which has had a low caseload so far, is a notable exception; it tested 47.4 contacts per confirmed case on average. Other states must learn from its successes.

Also read: ‘Govt relying on bureaucrats, not epidemiologists’: Top health experts slam Covid handling

Help family members mitigate risk

Among people for whom transmission details are available, the asymptomatic family members of confirmed cases form the largest segment of those both tested, and testing positive.

This should encourage state governments and city administrations to support individuals to quarantine and isolate safely; in high-density urban settings, the coronavirus has spread fast among family members, making them the largest affected group now. With the Modi government permitting those with mild and moderate symptoms to self-isolate at home since 27 April, the risk for family members will only grow.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Also read: Are people who have had Covid-19 immune? Perhaps not

Test marginalised groups more

Even though men and younger age groups are more affected by the pandemic in India, younger people and men are slightly more likely to get tested than they are to test positive.

To make up for this slight bias, India must boost the number of tests it conducts on women and older people. Many countries also report higher levels of deaths among minority groups; India does not have this information, but could consider boosting the numbers of those it tests from poor and marginalised communities.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint

Also read: 28% of 40,184 Covid positive cases in India till 30 April were asymptomatic: ICMR study

More asymptomatic random testing

The single largest group for whom details were available was not just family members of confirmed cases — it was asymptomatic family members of confirmed cases. This fact should help the Modi government refocus attention on testing asymptomatic people, preferably from random samples, given that it was unclear how the majority of those tested contracted the infection.

Whether these “unspecified” cases are on account of state governments doing an inadequate job of contact tracing or on account of widespread community transmission, the random testing of asymptomatic people will be the only way to stop the spread of coronavirus in its tracks.

The author is a Chennai-based data journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. Print editor should re edit it as the writer didnt have the basic knowledge track and trace is done by state government not the Modi Govt

    Its your credibility also affecting sir Mr. Rukmini may get a writing job in Wapo or Nyt for $500 / Article. But its credibility is under fire

    Hope Rukmini will start Blaming modi for koyambedu market covid cluster

  2. Dear Rukmini
    I am resident of Kerala and not a BJP SUPPORTER when kerala does good its state govt credit but opposition ruled states Maha or Delhi failed to Act its Modi Govts failure
    More than 10 states doing better you ignore them

    There is no Dharavi or other slums or places like mumbai in singapore korea or even in Sweden
    Stop comparing less populated countries with india
    people who come by Sharmik train may not know a contact to show how they get covid
    You should at least know that.

  3. I felt laughing at loud after reading few sentence
    Rukmini S forgot its not Modi Govt who does contact tracing.

    If she doesn’t know the basic details of covid track and tracing done by state and local administration then how can we believe or generate an opinion on an article written by Ms.Rukmini S

    ICMR is the sole body who issues guidelines through central government machinery. As everyone knows pandemic is not a business of politicians.

  4. We are lagging behind in testing not because it can’t be done but both state and central government dont want it as it poorly reflects on them. Through ICMR notification both central and state government are not allowing asymptomatic to be tested for elective procedures and some of them have banned labs. putting both public and doctors at risk. If there is no doctor is there who will treat you.those who support Modi think rationally. I know the situation because being a frontline worker I know more than you. The article is written in good faith but some people are still not understanding gravity of situation.

  5. The article is totally Biased while covering up with figures. She keeps mentioning that Modi Government has not done the testing correctly by tracing the contacts of the patients. She is very much aware that the Central Govt gives the overall instructions through ICMR to the States and it the responsibility of the States to ensure that the contact tracing is done correctly. She is trying to put the blame for the States negligence on the Modi Government repeatedly.
    Perhaps she would like to blame the hugh community spread in a vegetable market in Chennai also on the Modi Government.
    It is the first time that I am Totally disappointed in reading an article in The Print, but then I think that the Journalist Rukmani S. has written the article to attract the attention of the Anti India western publications so that she can get lucrative assignments.

  6. In Bihar and Odisha, the source of transmission is unknown for over 80 per cent of the people tested over three months, a clear indication that they are failing at contact tracing.

    This reporting is wrong regarding Odisha, I am not sure of Bihar but being resident of Odisha we certainly know “what are the details of maximum of cases” till Migrant trains started. The exponential jump in Covid cases in last couple of weeks are mostly in quarantine centers set up by govt for migrant workers or people who are coming back home.
    I am avid follower of The Print YouTube channel and can see not much have been talked about financially challenged states like Odisha and the good management out there. Most often Sekhar Gupta sir will only talk about strong states like Kerala, Rajasthan and commend their management.

    Kindy do better analysis before writing these number based articles. Regards!

  7. Author more interested in MOdi govt banging rather than real solution. sick of comparing to Korea Sweden singapore.

  8. Wrong to compare us with South Korea. Very small country. In our country where people refuse to use aarogya setu app, how can we ensure contact tracing? Jamat members refused to cooperate and derailed the whole tracing process. Let the author give concrete suggestions on how to do it in a complex and huge democracy like India. Very easy to criticize sitting in the arm chair.

  9. Don’t compare apples with mangoes i.e. West with India. That’s where your conclusions and fault finding has gone wrong.

  10. Rukmini, if this article is based on your personal view, then why are you allowed to have The Print’ which is backed by Congress party have it distribute publicly?Probably your payment to publish comes from Congress too?

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