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More than the number of novel coronavirus cases, it’s the clamour for testing that has grown in the past few days. The WHO’s advisory “test, test, test” may not exactly be applicable to India since it has not seen community transmission yet, but it’s still a guiding principle in containing the disease, Covid-19.

On Tuesday, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)—India’s apex medical research body—made it clear that it was broadening testing for the infection. It’s a graded response given the country’s creaking healthcare infrastructure. India is still in Stage 2—most cases are imported with no evidence of community transmission community transmission Community Transmission When a patient contracts an illness spread in such a way that the source of infection remains unknown . Adding 49 new public labs to the existing 72 testing centres, and inviting private labs to get ready with their kits, this was ICMR’s way to signal India was readying for Stage 3, if and when the infection spreads in the community.

In addition, the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune is testing eight antibody-based commercial tests and eight PCR (polymerase chain reaction)-based tests. Antibody-based tests are effective nearly a week after a person is infected, when the body starts producing antibodies in response to the virus. However, the tests being advocated worldwide today are real-time PCRs which check for the genetic material of the virus and take just 6-8 hours to show whether a patient has contracted the virus.

Of the eight PCR tests being validated by the NIV, two are specially notable. Both developed by Bengaluru-based biotech companies, nearly bootstrapped, and at their knitting for over two decades. Both companies are uniquely poised to expand the scope of diagnoses during the current pandemic.

Like the US FDA US FDA US FDA The Food and Drug Administration is a federal agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services , the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, India’s drug regulator, has promised the industry it’d remove bureaucratic hurdles under the emergency response mechanism to allow for new tests.

MolBio Diagnostics, which has built the world’s first handheld, battery-operated real time PCR, is perhaps the only field test for screening available anywhere today. It can be used at the airport, in villages, or any other public place to give results within an hour. Xcyton Diagnostics’ kit, meanwhile, is a confirmatory test. To be performed in a lab, like all PCR tests today, it can tell if a person has Covid-19 or any other respiratory infection.

MolBio got a booster shot when earlier this month, India Business Excellence Fund-III, a fund managed and advised by Motilal Oswal Private Equity, agreed to invest up to Rs 240 crore ($32 million) in the company.


Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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