Scientists toil to develop indigenous testing kits

Bengaluru scientists toil to develop indigenous COVID-19 testing kits

Representative image. (AFP Photo)

As India prepares to escalate the scale of testing for COVID-19, it is also grappling with serious shortages of testing kits due to international pandemic lockdowns, experts said.

The crisis has prompted several Bengaluru-based doctors and scientists to consider the development of a cost-effective COVID-19 diagnostic kit indigenously.

According to Dr K N Sridhar of Rangadore Memorial Hospital in Bengaluru, a consortium of four entities are engaged in attempts to indigenise the technology: Rangadore Hospital, the Centre for Materials for Electric Technology (C-MET) in Pune, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru and a 3D-printing society in Mumbai.

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Sridhar pointed out that the current shortfall in testing kits is because COVID-19 RT-PCR kits are primarily imported from Germany.

“Supplies have been badly affected because of the ongoing international lockdowns. But the lack of availability of the kits is just one aspect. There is another important bottleneck called swabs, which are critical for acquiring samples. These swabs come from Italy. But with the lockdown, supplies are drying up. India requires about four million swabs, but we currently only have 2,000. There is a huge crunch,” he said.

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The Covid-19 RT-PCR test uses three primer and probe sets to detect three regions in the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid gene and one primer and probe set to detect human Ribonuclease P in a clinical sample.

Dr Sridhar explained: Primers are chemicals. They bind to the nucleic acid bases. We need to get them in bulk at a lower price. There are probes which will divide them and identify the gene of interest (in this case, the coronavirus sequence).

“Both can be obtained independently from different companies. By indigenously designing the primers and the probe, you can produce a diagnostic kit which is 1/3rd the price of current commercial kits,” Dr Sridhar said.

The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) mandates the cost of internationally made RT-PCR diagnostic kits (which are approved by the US FDA) at Rs 4,500.

Deputy Chief Minister Ashwath Narayan, who was briefed in a video-conference about the ongoing project on Friday, espoused confidence that the new kits could slash the costs of coronavirus testing from Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 to about Rs 800.

Although it was reported that the kits could be ready within two weeks, Sridhar told DH that this earlier time-frame was tentative.

“We received the prototype from our partners last night. It seems effective but we have to validate them using positive swab samples. If that works, maybe in a week, we should have something,” he said.

Scientists at the Molecular Biology Unit (MBU), IISc, which is tasked with producing the swabs said the project was still in its infancy. They added that they had only just received a few swab samples.

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