Date: 12-Jun-2020

Covid19 Diagnostic Test Makers Want Export Ban Lifted As Demand For Kits From Indian States Slow Down

Domestic manufacturers of Covid-19 diagnostic test kits want the government to allow export of their products after reduced demand from state governments and a delay in procurement by the Indian Council of Medical Research has left them with a surplus.

The reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction tests, known as RT-PCR tests, are the gold standard in diagnosing Covid-19. The demand comes a day after the government lifted the ban on the export of antibody test kits, which check for antibodies of a disease.

The government had banned the export of these testing kits to cater to local demand.

ICMR has validated the RT-PCR test kits made by 40 domestic and multinational companies for local supply. However, as India’s Covid-19 case load rises every day, companies are reporting that state governments and ICMR have halted procurement of test kits.

“We are stuck with a huge inventory of raw materials/finished products and could suffer huge losses if this inventory of raw material/finished kits is not liquidated in time,” Shesheer Kumar, director of Huwel Lifesciences, a Hyderabad-based maker of RT-PCR kits, told ET.

The company cut production to 50,000 test kits a week from 300,000 a week. Huwel and other Indian companies wrote to the Director General of Foreign Trade to allow them to export excess kits to countries including Bangladesh and Nepal, which have no access to them.

“By the virtue of our existing relationships with foreign buyers, we can potentially sell these kits in such foreign markets. We are also getting demand from our existing foreign buyers,” they wrote in the letter, a copy of which ET reviewed.

“We have invested on a new manufacturing line for RT-PCR test kits. However, since the demand from the government is low, we are hoping that exports open up,” said Suresh Vazirani, MD of Transasia Bio-Medicals in Mumbai.

Indian companies have the capacity to make 146 million test kits a month, or 4.87 million kits a day.

Multinational companies that had committed to supply 10 million kits to the Indian government have seen only 1% of their offer picked up. The Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana governments cancelled or failed to honour tenders to pick up RT-PCR kits over the past few weeks, companies told ET

A tender floated by HLL Lifecare, the government’s procurement agency, to purchase 2.9 million RT-PCT kits, 4 million viral transport media and 3.3 million RNA extraction kits has been postponed as states are yet to utilise the kits given to them by ICMR ET has learnt.

An email sent to ICMR on test kit purchases was unanswered.

Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR, said on Thursday that India has ramped up testing from one lab to 800 labs and can currently carry out 200,000 tests per day. “But our capacity is not fully utilised,” he said.

ICMR and several Indian states are under fire for not testing enough. Experts have said wide testing is helpful in detecting cases early and could help in isolation and containment of the disease.

ICMR had conducted over 5.2 million tests in India as of Thursday, with about 150,000 samples tested daily. India’s test positive ratio is 5.5%, which means that 1 in 20 people tested is positive.

Among states, Maharashtra has done 610,790 tests, New Delhi 261079 and Tamil Nadu about 573,000 tests. These are the three states with the highest number of cases.

Government officials told ET that several state governments are yet to use the kits that were given to them by ICMR and that is why they are not issuing fresh tenders. In Maharashtra, state government officials aware of the matter told ET that only 40% of the testing capacity is being used.