New Delhi: The number of rapid antigen tests (RAT), one of the quickest ways to detect Covid infection, has taken a dip in India, and this has left the central government worried, ThePrint has learnt.
The average daily RAT numbers have been hovering between 7 lakh and 10 lakh, against a target of 25 lakh, and capacity of approximately 30 lakh/day, senior government officials said. The fall from earlier levels of 17-18 lakh a day comes at a time when the central government is looking at ramping up rapid antigen tests to 45 lakh per day by next month, officials added.
The issue, the officials said, was discussed last week at a meeting of the empowered groups constituted by the central government to address various bottlenecks in Covid management.
The officials said it has been brought to the notice of the central government that one of the main reasons behind the dip is reduced production by many RAT kit manufacturers who have cited a delay in payments by state governments.
As of last Monday, states owed the companies Rs 372 crore, officials who attended the meeting said. “Among the states, Bihar has the maximum pending dues amounting to Rs 102 crore, followed by Assam (Rs 63 crore), Gujarat (Rs 32 crore), Telangana (Rs 31 crore), Maharashtra (Rs 21 crore), and Uttar Pradesh (Rs 10 crore),” added a senior government official who did not want to be named.
According to a list shared at the meeting, Andhra Pradesh allegedly has pending dues to the tune of Rs 48 crore.
Officials in the central and some of the state governments, like Uttar Pradesh, said payment delays in the majority of the cases is on account of “procedural bottlenecks” — such as improper documentation submitted by companies — rather than inadequacy of funds.
Meanwhile, other state governments — including Bihar and Odisha, which allegedly owes RAT kit companies Rs 2 crore, and Andhra Pradesh — denied there are any pending dues.
Rural testing hit
While prone to concerns about false negatives, scientists point out that RATs detect at least some variants better than RT-PCR tests. The Modi government earlier issued “advisories” urging states to cut down on them and rely on RT-PCR tests, whose results can take anywhere between 24 and 72 hours.
However, last month, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) revised the country’s testing strategy, advising antigen testing in all health facilities, both government and private, while calling for RAT booths to be set up in cities, towns and villages. RAT results are available within 30 minutes.
A senior official, who is part of an empowered group, said of the three dozen or so companies producing rapid antigen kits indigenously, the majority are start-ups.
“They don’t have that kind of cash flow. Delay on the part of states to clear payments of these companies has affected their production,” the official added.
Because of the delay in payments, the official said, the supply chain is getting affected in states. It is proving to be a big impediment in ramping up testing, especially in rural areas, the official added.
“In rural areas, rapid antigen tests come in handy as RT-PCR test reports take time. In villages, you don’t have facilities to analyse RT-PCR samples. The samples are sent to the district hospital, which take time. In such a scenario, if there is a decline in the number of rapid antigen tests owing to delay in payment, then it will become counterproductive,” the official said.
The official added, “Many of these are small start-ups with limited funds. They have borrowed money from banks to run their operations. They are finding it difficult to continue production in the absence of funds.”
The empowered group, another official said, has now asked the Union health ministry and the home ministry to take up the matter with the respective state governments to expedite the payments owed to the manufacturers.
States deny claim
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior UP government official who didn’t wish to be identified said the delay was because of “procedural issues like the companies not submitting proper documents”.
“The amounts involved are not much and state governments can easily pay,” the official added.
Bihar Chief Secretary Tripurari Sharan refuted the allegation of pending dues.
“There was a gap of a few weeks earlier because the official handling accounts was down with Covid. But no dues are pending now. All payments have been cleared,” he said.
Sharan added that, in some cases, payments were held up because the companies had supplied defective kits. Bihar is currently conducting approximately one lakh tests every day, of which 75 per cent are rapid antigen tests, Sharan said.
Odisha Health Secretary Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra said no dues are pending as far as the state is concerned. “In fact, we have ordered 22 lakh rapid antigen kits but are yet to get it as there are supply chain issues,” he added.
A senior health department official from Andhra Pradesh said the central government is deliberately trying to blame states. “Unnecessarily, a controversy is being created where there is none. We have enough funds. You think we will hold back payment of Rs 48 crore for paucity of funds?” the official added, not wishing to be named.
An official with a RAT kit manufacturer said the delay in payments has created a cash flow problem.
“During Covid times, even for procuring basic raw materials like nasal swabs, we have to make 100 per cent advance payment. These raw materials are not available on credit,” the official, who did not want to be named, said.
One has to remember that it’s not a service but a product industry, the official said, adding that, in some cases, there is a delay because of non-availability of funds with states.
However, Hasmukh Rawal, managing director, Mylab Discovery Solutions, which was one of the first firms to get the ICMR’s nod to produce antigen testing kits last year, admitted that documentation is a problem. ”It’s not that states are unwilling to pay. Sometimes the documents the companies submit are not in order, because of which payments get held up.”
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.