Why did ICMR go ahead with Chinese rapid test kits when there was enough evidence against their efficacy?
Profiteering during a public health crisis means that we as a species have not learnt lessons from a killer pandemic that has driven home the point why saving lives and humanity should be the only mission. And even if that doesn’t work for us, then there is no way we can tackle this war against an unknown enemy. The Government and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) have landed with egg on their faces for importing the much touted COVID-19 antibody test kits from Chinese companies at higher prices and without validating their efficacy. Large batches have been found to be faulty —some kits were found to be only accurate by up to five per cent and failed dismally even in identifying confirmed COVID cases — though the Government claims that these will be returned and that we have not lost money since no advance payment had been made in full. But the damage has been done; testing has slowed down till valid and credible replacements are got from South Korea and other nations. It is known that China dominates the testing kits market at the moment and no matter how much we ramp up production of our home-grown variants, we do not have the economies of scale that our neighbour has. As we go in for intensive testing, we need kits and we need them fast. Besides, by virtue of a longer experience in handling the virus and its factory floors opening up before others, China is better equipped with testing technology and has been exporting kits all around the world. Except that their quality has been uniformly suspect for a while with even the US, Germany, France and Turkey returning consignments. Clearly China’s greed in capturing the world market has meant poor quality control. We did have enough time to decide, therefore, before placing the order. Question is why did ICMR, despite knowing all this, still go ahead with the procurement? Has it been hasty in calling this incorrectly, considering there was a burgeoning pressure to arrest the disease spiral at home? And now that it has approached South Korea, too, why didn’t it go there in the first place given its proven track record of rapid testing? Not only that, the Indian company that got in the Chinese kits, had put a 140 per cent mark-up on prices and was selling them steep. Why wasn’t the ICMR, which works under a unified task force that represents the country’s top experts, as vigilant about technical evaluation? It did not consult a technical joint monitoring group formed by the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) and went ahead with the contract nevertheless. Now this includes experts from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) as well as emergency medical relief (EMR) officials and experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Is there any reason to doubt them? Yes, ICMR is under pressure but does that mean it follows what other nations are doing just because it is the done thing? It ought to have convinced itself of the efficacy of such kits before anything else. Now this error has proven costly and will doubly delay the arrival of replacements.
There is no denying that China, which anyway dominates the pharmaceutical market worldwide, is looking to colonise the post-COVID medical economy globally. And in that attempt it is overselling itself, overlooking checks and balances in its assembly line. Wondfo Biotech, from where we got the kits, of course, insists that its equipment is fine and claimed it had been validated by the Indian medical research body itself at the time of issuing an import licence. It also laid the blame on the door of Indian operators for faulty handling and storage that led to erroneous results and accused India of perpetuating a bias at a time when nations should cooperate. China, while hyperventilating against us and using the fiasco to mount diplomatic pressure, should consider that India still went ahead with the contract despite existing adverse reports. The UK Government is facing criticism for having bought two million test kits for $20 million from Chinese companies that reportedly didn’t work. While China may use this as a reason for straining diplomatic ties, upset as it is by the Government’s decision to step up scrutiny of investments from neighbouring countries and avoid ambush-like takeovers, India must stand firm on devising its own COVID protocol that works in our context. We have reliable experts who should be consulted for the best way out even as building self-sufficiencies in healthcare will span many budgets and implementation going forward.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)