Indian authorities have said they will not expand coronavirus testing, as most affected nations are doing, despite criticism that limited testing could leave COVID-19 cases undetected in the world’s second-most populous country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to test as widely as possible to curb the pandemic, but India has only been testing those who have travelled from affected countries or come in contact with a confirmed case and shown symptoms after two weeks of quarantine.
On Tuesday, it added healthcare workers with symptoms who are treating patients with severe respiratory illnesses.
India is conducting only about 90 tests per day, despite having the capacity for as many as 8,000. So far, 11,500 people have been tested, according to the Associated Press.
WHO guidance ‘premature’
Officials have said the WHO guidance didn’t apply in India because the spread of the disease has been less severe than elsewhere.
Balaram Bharghava, who heads the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s top medical research body, said the guidance was “premature” for India, where community transmission has not yet been detected.
“Therefore it creates more fear, more paranoia and more hype,” he said.
Last week, a British citizen who approached a public hospital in New Delhi for coronavirus test was told she was not eligible under India’s testing criteria and turned away.
The woman, who requested anonymity fearing business consequences for her employer, said she told hospital officials that she may have had contact with an infected person in her hospitality sector job, but could not be sure.
After trying and failing to be tested a second time, she left India this week for France, where her family lives and where President Emmanuel Macron had announced extreme measures to curb the coronavirus.
Indian authorities have justified their restrictions as a way to keep a deluge of people from demanding tests that would cost the government money it needs to combat other diseases such as tuberculosis, malnutrition and HIV/AIDs.
ICMR said there was no need to expand such testing. However, authorities said they’re preparing for community spread by bolstering their lab testing infrastructure. India has 52 coronavirus testing centres.
As a result of the narrow testing criteria, sick people with potential exposure to the coronavirus are being sent home, and some experts fear that India’s caseload could be much higher than government statistics indicate.
Bharghava, the ICMR chief, said virus infections in India can still be traced back to people who travelled into the country from affected locales and that testing protocols would be revised if community transmission is detected.
Coronavirus cases in India rose to 147 on Wednesday, a day after a third person, a 64-year-old man, died in the western state of Maharashtra.
The South Asian nation has closed most schools and entertainment facilities, including cinemas.
Authorities say most of the infections have been “imported” – linked to foreign travel or direct contact with someone who caught the disease abroad.
India has suspended all incoming tourists and will bar non-Indian passengers on flights from the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and the United Kingdom from Wednesday.
Travellers coming from or transiting through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine when they arrive in India, the government announced on Monday.
Arrivals from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany are already subject to similar restrictions, while most border points with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar have been shut.