India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to ramp up testing to one million per day over the next few weeks to tackle one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.

But can he achieve this, and are the tests being used reliable?

How much testing is India doing now?

At the start of August, around half a million tests were being carried out each day across India on a week’s average, according to the international comparison site, Our World in Data. Daily figures released by the Indian government are slightly higher than this.

This is a large number but should be put in the context of the size of India’s population.

It carries out around 36 tests each day for every 100,000 people. In comparison, the figure for South Africa is 69, for Pakistan it’s eight, and for the United Kingdom it’s 192.

Prime Minister Modi’s ambition is to double this number to achieve a million tests each day for a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion.

What kind of tests is India using?

While boosting testing is regarded as a key part of the battle against the coronavirus, it’s the type of testing which experts say is causing concern.

The one that’s been most commonly used globally is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which isolates genetic material from a swab sample.

PCR test analysis machine in Germany
PCR tests go through machine analysis

Chemicals are used to remove proteins and fats from the genetic material, and the sample is put through machine analysis.

These are regarded as the gold standard of testing, but they’re the most expensive in India and take up to eight hours to process the samples. To produce a result may take up to a day, depending on the time taken to transport samples to labs.

In order to increase its testing capacity, the Indian authorities have been switching over to a cheaper and quicker method called a rapid antigen test, more globally known as diagnostic or rapid tests. 

These isolate proteins called antigens that are unique to the virus, and can give a result in 15 to 20 minutes.

But these tests are less reliable, with an accuracy rate in some cases as low as 50%, and were originally meant to be used in virus hotspots and healthcare settings. 

It is worth noting that these tests only tell you if you are currently infected and are different from antibody tests that tell you if you were infected in the past.

Read more: BBC News

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