Even critics would agree that PM Modi’s address to the nation yesterday was the best so far with feel-good symbolism replaced by important steps. The best though, was saved for last when he asked young scientists to step up to help create a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.
This open call to science during a crisis after years of either cutting science funding or minuscule increases is not only a welcome departure but the second step in India’s fight against COVID-19. The PM missed out on the first, most important step - testing.
First, let’s find out how immediately helpful the call to create a vaccine is by considering the best possible outcome. Let’s say the best scientific minds after heeding the PMs call and aided by unlimited funds and zero bureaucracy, manage to find a vaccine within a month. And let us say testing and approval – which takes years - is shortened to 3 months.
Post that we’d at least need a year to have the vaccine reaches most of 1.3 billion Indians.
The question that even this best-case scenario begs to ask is this: what do we do for the next 16 months? Obviously we cannot keep the nation under lockdown. Thus, a vaccine does not provide the shortest path to a return to a semblance of normalcy in the post-COVID world. Testing does.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of the best Indian minds should be put to finding a cure or vaccine. What is equally important though, is to allocate some of those minds to the creation of an inexpensive, diagnostic test kit for COVID-19.
Why is testing so important?
Knowledge is power, more so during a pandemic where you need to SEE an INVISIBLE VIRUS to effectively control its spread. How you do that is by following its movement, like in almost every invisible man movie where you are not able to see the person but can see his wet footsteps.
Every single cluster spread of the virus worldwide has shown the pattern in SARS-Cov-2’s movement – the person who gets it spreads it to those who come closest to him physically, who then do the same. This spread, we can ‘see’ if we test extensively.
That is what countries who have fought the virus effectively so far without having to impose drastic lockdowns – Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, etc. have done. This is what India needs to somehow replicate if it wants to open up its economy and literally save thousands to lakhs of lives that would be lost, not to the virus, but hunger and poverty the more lockdowns extends.
India, however, has been criticized for having one of the poorest per capita testing numbers. The reason is not hard to guess – the current tests are too expensive for a poor nation like India.
What we need, like I eluded to in a column previously, are tests so cheap that getting one would be as easy as buying vegetables from the nearest market.
And what is the ideal number of tests India needs to do daily? The answer is somewhere between 2.6 lakh to around 60 million a day. Why this huge fluctuation? The 2.6 lakh figure I’ve reached from expanding South Korea’s current numbers (10,000 daily tests for a population of 5 crores) to India’s population.
The 60 million figure is an approximate extension made after studying a series of white papers put out by Edmond J. Safra Centre for Ethics, a research center at Harvard University. They suggest up to 20 million tests per day for the US (less than one-third of India’s population) along with a vigorous contact tracing regimen.
This is not an accurate figure for India by any stretch and my only intention with this guesstimate is to trigger this thought in India as we don’t seem to have begun thinking about it. To get the correct testing numbers for India though, epidemiologists, ethicists, and statisticians have to get together to consider the various India specific factors into the calculation like the Safra Center has done to arrive at their numbers.
The biggest problem in India as far as testing goes, is its cost which right now is prohibitively high to enable such mass testing. Hence, what we need is the cheapest COVID-19 test in the world, a test under Rs. 100, ideally half of it i.e. Rs.50. At this cost, doing say even 10 million tests a day would cost the exchequer Rs. 50 crore a day, a minuscule sum when you consider that the loss to India on account of the lockdown is $4.5 billion per day.
The tests would, of course, need to be followed by rigorous contact tracing which India has effectively managed in places like the state of Kerala and Bhilwara in Rajasthan.
What would also need to be kept in mind to make that many tests are to help those industries that make the material that goes into making these test kits i.e. reagents, plastic parts, tubes etc.
Thus what the PM should have also asked the scientists of the nation and industrialists is to join hands and pool people and money to create the cheapest COVID-19 test in the world. It would be ideal if the PM got on national television for a 10-minute address just for this and perhaps also declare both financial assistance to those who want to try their hand and also rewards for those companies who come the closest.
Thus, the very first order of business for at least a part of the scientific establishment in the Modi administration should be to ‘see the virus’ by developing homegrown, inexpensive testing kits and figuring out the correct number of tests we need daily. Without this, we’d be doomed not just from a collapsing economy, but also the social unrest that thousands to lakhs of possible hunger deaths could unleash.
POSTSCRIPT: A lot of magic can happen on social media. So whether the PM addresses this issue or not, you and I can do our bit via a hashtag #Rs50COVID19TestKitChallenge. Let’s post this hashtag with the idea behind it to inspire those how can develop a good, cheap COVID-19 testing kit.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)