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Government to outsource H1N1 tests to private labs

By Prashant K. Nanda, IANS,

New Delhi : Struggling to cope with the rush of suspected swine flu cases, the government is planning to outsource H1N1 tests to select private diagnostic centres to reduce the backlog and to ensure that patients get their results on time.

“The health ministry said they are likely to shift their load to some of us but only after they are satisfied with our proficiency,” said Ashok Rattan, Super Religare Laboratories (SRL) advisor.

“They have told us that the result must come within 24 hours,” Rattan told IANS.

“We will undergo a proficiency test. We hope we will satisfy them during real life testing of samples under their supervision during proficiency test. Soon after, government will be our customer. We also have fixed Rs.4,000 as our charge to government to test a sample when they give it to us,” he added.

While the government plans to outsource H1N1 diagnostics, it is also going ahead with its proposal to let patients go directly to private labs for getting themselves tested for the viral disease. SRL says it will charge private individuals the same amount – Rs.4,000 – for a test once the government’s green signal comes in.

The health ministry had earlier said that it costs the government Rs.10,000 to carry out a positive tests and Rs. 5,000-6,000 for a negative one.

On Friday, SRL and five other laboratories went through an orientation programme.

“They (government) told us about the precautions and protection we need to take care of during the transportation of samples and testing,” said Rattan.

Besides SRL, the others likely to get a pie of the testing job are Dr. Lal’s Pathlab, Piramal, Quest, Auroprobe and Era Health.

According to Rattan, who is also head of the Fortis Clinical Research team, the National Centre for Disease Control (formerly NICD), the National Institute of Virology (NIV) and other government labs were doing a great job and the outsourcing plan was just to “provide quick and reliable service…”

Rattan disclosed that the government had decided to relax the 25 percent duty on the import of swine flu testing kits. “We are happy at the government decision. We too have demanded that government must give us some Tamiflu tablets for our technicians who will be involved in the process.”

SRL has also urged health ministry officials to provide it N-95 masks and personal protection equipments (PPE) at government price. “A N-95 mask costs Rs.50 but in open market it costs around Rs.300. Similarly, a PPE costs NCDC Rs.206 but in the open market, it must be much more. If they can give us at government rates, it will be a great help.”

Asked when the outsourcing plans would fructify, a health ministry, who did not wish to be named, said: “You will hear the news in near future.”

Laboratories in places like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, which have reported large number of cases, are handling samples way beyond their capacity. For example, NCDC has the capacity to test around 150 samples a day but receives over 400 samples a day. It also gets samples from states like Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir.

Sometimes, the results take more than 48 hours. There have been at least two cases where the patient died before the test results came in. And, in one suspected case in Chhattisgarh, it took NCDC over 60 hours to send the result.

Over 1,700 people have already been infected by the contagious virus of which at least 25 people have died so far in India.