It was as recently as 12 March when Ram Pramod Tiwari began work on a rapid antibody test to detect Covid-19. By 25 March, claims Tiwari, he and his team of two lab assistants had a sample kit ready to be vetted by the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, Maharashtra. Tiwari is the technical director of Vanguard Diagnostics, a five-year-old, Delhi-based diagnostics manufacturer. Vanguard’s rapid antibody test is one of the few kits approved for usage by NIV.

Getting this approval amid a nationwide lockdown wasn’t easy. Vanguard had to obtain special passes to transport the kit samples by autorickshaw to the Delhi airport. From there, it was flown to Mumbai, where a partner agency was waiting to collect and transport it to NIV in Pune, Tiwari says. The effort paid off—on 2 April, two days after shipping the kits to Pune, they received NIV approval.

Vanguard’s lucky. So far, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR)—the apex body in charge of India’s Covid-19 strategy—had a rather conservative approach to testing. But that is simply no longer an option as the spread of the virus continues.

"No one knows the etymology of this disease. As a scientist, even I'm scared to handle these [infected] samples"

R P Tiwari, Vanguard

Already, the infection rate is doubling every four days. Densely populated cities like Mumbai are now feared feared The Scroll Outbreak has reached Community Transmission Read more to have entered the dreaded community transmission phase. States like Maharashtra and Kerala have clamped down on all movement to and from “ hotspots hotspots Economic Times ICMR approves antibody tests in hotspots Read more ”—areas with a wide prevalence of the disease. Within these zones, states need a quick surveillance and segregation mechanism to figure just how quickly the virus is spreading. 

A new phase of response demands a new testing regime. One that’s nimbler, quicker, and less expensive than PCR PCR Polymerase Chain Reaction PCR tests are used to directly detect the presence of an antigen, rather than the presence of the body’s immune response, or antibodies. By detecting viral RNA, which will be present in the body before antibodies form or symptoms of the disease are present, the tests can tell whether or not someone has the virus very early on. tests. Rapid antibody tests, like those produced by Vanguard, check all those boxes. 

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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