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Bihar Fails to Ramp up RT-PCR Tests, Still Heavily Dependent on RAT

This became evident when Bihar reported only 5,920 positive cases recently, the lowest after a month with a record 1,25,312 samples tested till date, including 91,048 RAT, 30,522 RT-PCR tests and 3,742 Tunet tests.
Bihar RTPCR test.

Patna: Repeated directives by none other than Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to increase RT- PCR tests do not seem to have cut any ice as the state is still heavily dependent on Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT). This became evident a day after Bihar reported 5,920 positive cases, the lowest after a month with a record 1,25,312 samples tested (on May 17) till date, including 91,048 RAT, 30,522 RT-PCR tests and 3,742 Tunet tests.

According to state health department officials, RAT has been doubled in a fortnight instead of RT-PCR tests, which continue to remain around 30,000 per day. It was on May 7 that the highest 34,792 RT-PCR tests was conducted in the state.

“In the past 17 days, COVID tests have increased from 89,000 to 1.25 lakh, mainly RAT making for 80,000 to 90,000 of the total tests”,a senior official told NewsClick on condition of anonymity.

On May 2, over 89,393 samples were tested, including over 56,000 RAT and 30,000 RT-PCR test and 2,596 Tunet tests. After that, RATs increased in the past two weeks.

It was not Nitish Kumar alone, the Patna High Court also directed the state government to increase RT-PCR tests.

An RT-PCR test is considered a more accurate method to detect COVID-19. Health experts have repeatedly pointed out that RAT may give false negatives. During the ongoing second wave, hundreds of people who tested negative after RAT were later tested positive by RT-PCR tests. This has been extensively reported in local, especially Hindi, newspapers here.

However, the government has been accused of “hiding” figures related to the exact number of RT-PCR and RAT samples tested daily. The health department’s information update and data about the COVID situation in Bihar does not have a break-up of testing methods being used.

“We cannot share anything related to different types of COVID-19 testing being done. We have been asked not to say anything about the official COVID data," a health official said.

The Indian Medical Association, Bihar, secretary, Dr. Sunil Kumar, said there should be more RT-PCR tests as tracing cases is proving to be a big challenge which is only possible if more samples are tested by RT-PCR. “The government’s focus should be to increase RT- PCR in rural areas where COVID spreading fast”, he added.

Meanwhile, the Opposition Mahagathbandhan, including Left parties, has also demanded more RT-PCR testing.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav accused the Bihar government of playing a "dangerous game" with COVID-19 testing figures. “The government has been increasing the testing rate by using Rapid Antigen Tests instead of RT-PCR tests,” he claimed.

According to health officials, RT-PCR facilities are very limited in district headquarters and are non-functional in several parts. Of all the tests, between 75% to 80% are done by RAT while only between 25% to 30% tests have been via RT-PCR, NewsClick had reported earlier.

The state government has been tom-tomming that COVID cases are declining in Bihar and is also presenting a picture that active positive cases have also declined, as these stood at 69,697 on Monday, nearly 45,000 down from 1,15000 last month. This appears to be the result of the lockdown imposed in the first week of May in the state. The state recovery rate has increased to 88.81% from 77% last month. The positivity rate, too, has declined to 5.7% from 14 % in early this month, as per official figures.

However, reports suggest that rural areas are fully under the grip of the novel coronavirus this year, unlike during the first wave last year. The virus has already claimed lives in hundreds of villages on a daily basis but the news is either being suppressed or is hardly getting any space.

Due to a lack of testing facilities and basic health infrastructure in rural areas, most people with COVID-like symptoms (high fever, cough, weakness and breathlessness) have been diagnosed with typhoid or viral flu in village after village by local self-proclaimed doctors. This is why hundreds of COVID-19 patients have been wasting several days in villages before reaching out for proper treatment to hospitals in Patna or nearby areas, by which time it is often too late as their oxygen saturation is below 70, or even 60, in some cases.

A sense of fear is growing in rural Bihar since earlier this week about the virus spreading fast, as reports of more and more deaths pour in day after day. People in villages across are gripped by fear, more so because of lack of medical facilities. The virus had largely left rural areas untouched last year.

With COVID-19 cases rising and spreading in rural areas, the state government has still not initiated special measures for thousands of migrant workers who have returned to their native villages or are still returning by buses, trucks and other vehicles.

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