Make RT-PCR machines available soon, High Court tells ICMR, govt.

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The Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court on Thursday directed the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Maharashtra government to ensure that all real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines are made available for COVID-19 tests at the earliest, and to use rapid antibody tests for surveillance in hotspots.

A single Bench of Manish Pitale issued the direction after the court was informed that three RT-PCR machines were available in Vidarbha region but were not being used because the ICMR had not approved them.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Nagpur residents C.H. Sharma and Subash Zanwar, who had raised concerns over the quality of healthcare provided at four government medical colleges in Vidarbha region.

The petitioners claimed that the medical colleges did not have enough seats for students, and also cited lack of proper equipment, staff, teachers, and funds. They had also moved the court in March stating that the medical colleges in Vidarbha were ill-equipped to handle COVID-19 patients.

In the last hearing, assistant solicitor general U.M. Aurangabadkar had told the Bench that while rapid antibody test kits were available, they could not be used by laboratories at the moment as sample tests showed varied results, and could only be used for ‘surveillance’.

The Bench was informed that the ICMR had the kits at its disposal, and could be distributed to States if demanded. The court was also informed that Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories could not be made operational in Yavatmal and Chandrapur before May 20 because of lack of infrastructure.

During the course of the hearing, assistant government pleader Deepak Thakare told the court that Maharashtra had received 71,000 rapid antibody test kits which were to be distributed in hotspots, but the director of health services had instructed the centres to not use it as informed by the ICMR, and hence distribution of kits has been stopped since April 20.

However, Mr. Aurangabadkar said that the ICMR had not decided to do away with the rapid antibody test kits but had merely asked not to use kits procured from two Chinese manufacturers.

Mr. Aurangabadkar said rapid antibody tests could certainly be undertaken for the purposes of surveillance, although the best test for diagnosis of COVID-19 continues to be the RT-PCR swab test.

Justice Pitale on Thursday directed the State authorities to use the rapid antibody tests for surveillance and prevention of the spread of COVID-19 as recognised by the ICMR.

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