The wait for RT-PCR test has increased: Labs get twice the samples

Many states are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, and India reported over 2 lakh coronavirus cases on April 15, 2021, marking a record single day spike.
Coronavirus samples representative image
Coronavirus samples representative image
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India is in the grip of a second wave of COVID-19, reporting over two lakh coronavirus cases on April 15, 2021, marking a new record in the number of cases reported in a single day. The rising caseload also means that there is a higher demand for RT-PCR tests, and many diagnostic labs that TNM spoke to said that they are getting around twice as many samples to test per day, and that the time between getting tested and getting results has increased.

Dr A Velumani, CEO of Thyrocare Technologies, a chain of diagnostic laboratories, explains that the demand for RT-PCR tests is very high right now, added by those who are looking to get tested for travel purposes. “To put things into perspective, if say the capacity of labs is 50,000 tests, the demand right now is 1,50,000.” He added that this time, they are seeing a 100% growth in the number of cases per week, compared to 100% growth per month in the first COVID-19 wave.

In Kannur in Kerala, a lab technician working at a government RT-PCR lab said that if they used to receive 1,500 samples per day 10 months ago, the number had decreased to 500 a day towards the end of 2020. Now, however, the number has increased to around 3,000 samples per day. “Over the last two days, the sample collection has been very high. At a government meeting, they said that 2,50,000 samples had been collected in the last 48 hours,” he told TNM on Wednesday.

Several people have been reporting major delays in getting RT-PCR test results, especially in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. A Twitter user who got tested in Mumbai said his test results took six days from the day of sample collection. This report by The Quint notes delays of over 72 hours faced by residents in the Delhi-NCR region. In one case, a woman was unable to even get her sample collected even though she enrolled at three places that promised sample collection and results in 24 hours. These situations have left those looking to travel in the lurch as many states and countries mandate a negative RT-PCR test result that is not over three days old.

Dr Sumith*, who works at a fever clinic in Bengaluru, said that they are no longer able to assure patients of getting test results earlier than 48 hours. Earlier, they were able to accommodate such requests based on a person’s requirements for travel and so on. “But the time to get results after sample collection has not increased over 48 hours because all Public Health Centres collect the samples and send it to the lab for testing by evening. By the next day afternoon or evening, the result gets reported. Once the results are out, priority is given to coronavirus positive patients – they receive a call informing them of the result, sometimes even before they get the report itself,” he said. “The civic body is handling 10,000 tests per day now. But if people want results on a deadline, that is no longer possible,” he added.

Pradeep Dogra, Head of Marketing at Vijaya Diagnostic Centre Private Limited, told TNM that the number of samples they are collecting per day has almost doubled. “In Hyderabad, earlier the turnaround time from sample collection to test results was 24 hours, now it has increased to 36 hours.”

Dr Prakash, MD Microbiology at Mediclu Diagnostics in Bengaluru, said that they are seeing a similar increase in time to generate test results. “Earlier test results would take a maximum of 24 hours. However, the sample collection has gone from 30-40 per day to 200-300 samples per day.”

An employee of a private lab in Hyderabad also told TNM that they are now anticipating a manpower crunch, especially with people calling for home sample collection combined with a growing caseload.

However, Dr Deepak Balani, Chief of Medical Services at Sakra World Hospital in Bengaluru, said that while the delay in getting test results is not very significant in Bengaluru, in smaller cities he has been hearing of delays of up to two days.

“Here, the National Health Mission is overseeing the testing, and the system has been set up and tuned well. But going forward, there will be a problem because this is not a wave, but a tsunami. We don’t expect it to go down soon. As of now, there are more hands on the job, things are more streamlined, more people have been trained. There are other tests – such as TrueNAT, CBNAAT, and antigen tests – which give results faster. But we are stretched to capacity. There could be a delay in the future in getting tested in the first place too.” 

*Name changed

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