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Monumental Blunder to ask free COVID-19 testing by private labs.

Monumental Blunder to ask free COVID-19 testing by private labs : Dr P M Murali

Posted on 2020-04-11

“Dr P M Murali, President of ABLE (Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises) from 2012-18 and current Executive Council Member and a biotech industry veteran explains the economics behind the testing for COVID-19 and how a forced free testing by private labs will make the sector unviable in this special column written for eN-ABLE.”

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Could private labs really have the cash flow to test free as directed by the Honorable Supreme court?

A supreme court verdict has come into considerable debate across the country. Could private labs really have the cash flow to test free as directed by the Honourable Supreme court? Every Indian national today, rich or poor will have only one intent in mind which is how can I help the nation. So the answer to the question will private labs test free, the answer is a resounding yes. Then what is the debate about and what stops them testing? Why are Industry leaders accused of starting a campaign against the Supreme Court verdict?

To understand this we need to also look at what are the tests that are available. The most reliable test is RT-PCR (Reverse Transmission Polymerase Chain Reacion). This test is in the ball park figure of Rs 4,000 or thereabouts. If government is doing it free in its labs, it also means it is using the same corporate/public tax payers money to make it free for people. Something that in a health emergency any country will do.

However not all reagents of this test is indigenous and even with duty waiver this test is never going to be cheap. Let us to say about 100 private labs test a million people with RTPCR, simple math will tell us the cost per lab will be Rs 4 crore. Certainly, one does not see such a huge cash flow in any of these labs. Therefore there is an inherent risk in the judgment that private labs may not be able to afford even if their intent is good. This would be counterproductive as high testing numbers cannot be achieved. We also have to remember a number of tests will have to be redone to give definitive results. These are g called confirmatory tests. Antibody tests are cheaper and several testing kits are out there but not entirely reliable for definitive confirmation. They can serve as indicatory. We certainly need to test once again with RTPCR to confirm it. This essentially means that for any suspected patient, the costly RT-PCR test may have to be done multiple time, depending on the nature of infection.

Arnab Goswami of Republic TV countered Kiran Mazumdar on his debate on April 9,2020 supporting free testing and stating that private labs are wealthy, neglecting their national duty and trying to profiteer. This is 100 % complete distortion of truth. The point is will the private labs be able to sustain is the question on the minds of the people who know how expensive these tests can be. The worst fall out is the urgent requirement to do more tests that captains of pharmaceutical industry and hospitals have been suggesting repeatedly to get us out of the pandemic situation. They now can be easily portrayed as people who wanted ICMR to do more tests so that they can make loads of money using this crises. This is the second biggest distortion of truth and it is more like a campaign to malign the entire pharma industry which has shown exemplary discipline and fortitude to work through this crises. Not sure any Industry could have been more responsible in this hour of crises.

So what is the solution? Firstly there is no debate with respect to larger pool of testing and the testing has to be affordable/free. The common man who has lost his livelihood can never afford to pay for these tests. Government labs can test only to their existing capacity. This means private labs will have to test. We should not allow a situation where they will be financially crippled in the first two months of operations. If there is a way forward to make this equitable where the cost of testing (at cost) is borne by somebody. May be a combination of funds from PM-CARES, Philanthrophy, CSR, Ayushman Bharat so that the whole financial burden does not fall on Private labs Let us not slay the golden goose (private labs) that can do the tests (lay golden eggs). It would be a monumental blunder.