The growing storm over the time and money wasted by the Narendra Modi government in procuring rapid antibody testing kits for coronavirus from China, which have now demonstrated a mere 5 per cent accuracy rate, points to serious failures of policy and decision-making on the part of the government and its favoured medical agency, the Indian Council of Medical Research or ICMR.
This week, the ICMR halted testing for Covid-19 cases, admitting to embarrassingly major variations in test results. The entire episode has shown up yet again the abject fecklessness of the Modi government’s unprofessional management of the Covid-19 crisis.
Opposition leaders like myself who have raised the issue have been confronted with the usual backlash from the government’s supporters. Their response – disregarding the usual ‘whataboutery’ and gratuitous references to “70 years of Congress rule” (which suggests that today’s BJP trolls have decided to cede Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the Congress!) – made two main points.
The first, in essence, is: “What could the Modi government have done about it? Many other countries have also had the same experience.” The second boils down to: “What other choice did the government have? The Congress was asking for rapid tests, the public and the experts were clamouring for them. What other option was there?” Allow me to address each objection in turn.
Chinese testing kits failing world
The first objection begs the counter: Yes, that is exactly the point. How smart is a government if it does not learn from the mistakes of other governments? Isn’t it foolish to make the same mistake as others, knowing that it is a mistake – and that too at the cost of public health and money?
At a time when coronavirus testing is widely acknowledged as vital, the inaccuracy levels of the Chinese kits have received international opprobrium. Against the 80 per cent accuracy required of testing kits by both the EU Medicine and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chinese kits have failed miserably. They registered 20 per cent accuracy in the Czech Republic, 30 per cent in Spain, 35 per cent in Turkey and 40 per cent in the Philippines, before India placed its own orders and found the Chinese kits were scoring 5 per cent here.
Spain, a severely coronavirus-afflicted nation with among the highest number of positive cases, returned around 6,00,000 faulty Chinese kits to the manufacturer, Shenzhen Bioeasy Technology. Italy and the Netherlands have stopped testing with Chinese kits. The British government, appalled by the poor performance of the kits it bought from China, wants a $20 million refund from two Chinese companies. The Philippines says they have discarded their Chinese kits, and Slovakia declared the 1.2 million Chinese antibody tests it had purchased for $1.83 million to be so worthless that Prime Minister Igor Matovic was quoted as saying that they should “just be thrown straight into the Danube”.
Of course, Chinese spokesmen in India keep claiming their kits are fine, provided they are procured from authorised manufacturers, and the ones sold to India are “verified”. “China attaches great importance to the quality of exported medical products”, declared Chinese embassy spokesperson Ji Rong, claiming that China had made its regulatory measures more stringent to raise export quality standards. But India went ahead and ordered from the same Chinese company — Guangzhou Wondfo — with which the UK government had a bad experience. Whether this reflects ineptitude or collusion – or worse – it is difficult to say a kind word about this decision. If the orders had already been placed before the bad news started coming in from abroad – a possible next line of defence for Modi government – why weren’t the orders cancelled, especially when it was anyway delayed? Why couldn’t we refuse delivery until China proved their test kits worked?
Many options at home
The second defence used by the Modi government’s acolytes – that there were no other options – is simply untenable. There were. The answer lay in the indigenous development of testing kits, just as the US, South Korea and Germany have done. Indians are no less capable of doing the same thing, but for reasons best known to the decision-makers in the country, the government has neither been smart enough not quick enough to facilitate it.
In fact, there are two successful initiatives from reputable institutions in my own constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, with which I am closely associated as the local MP and also as a member of their governing bodies – the prestigious Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST) and the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB), both ‘centres of excellence’ recognised as such by the government.
SCTIMST’s RT-LAMP test, a conclusive, yet faster and cheaper, test that can replace the expensive and time-consuming RT-PCR test, and RGCB’s antibody rapid test kits (the kind we have now imported from China and found faulty) are still awaiting ICMR approval, weeks after completing all the necessary validations.
At this time of national emergency, when ICMR should be taking decisions in matter of hours and days, rather than weeks and months, there is a baffling dragging of feet in New Delhi.
I had given Rs 1 crore in funding to SCTIMST from my MPLADS account on 30 March, shortly before Prime Minister Modi announced he was sequestering all the MPLADS funds (ironically, in order to fight Covid-19!). Since then, SCTMIST has moved rapidly, completed R&D, tested their product – and achieved a 100 per cent accuracy rate in trials – but the long-awaited certification from ICMR has still not come, without which the kits cannot be mass-manufactured. This is also the case with RGCB. Meanwhile, SD Biosensor, a South Korean company, has started production of rapid testing kits in India, with a capacity to produce 5,00,000 per week.
With SCTIMST’s new gold-standard product, RGCB’s and now SD Biosensor’s, the government of India will have no dearth of locally-available options. And this at a time when the world is turning away from China as a result of both mistrust in the government and fear of the reliability of their products, as well as out of a widespread desire to reduce dependence on Beijing. Why, then, did the Modi government procure faulty kits from China? In the famously discredited words of a television showman, the nation wants to know.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.
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