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We Have Done Nearly 2.5 Million RT-PCR Tests So Far: Dr Arvind Lal, Dr Lal PathLabs

Dr Arvind Lal, Executive Chairman, Dr Lal PathLabs and a Padma Shri recipient, in an exclusive conversation with BW Busienssworld’s Jyotsna Sharma, speaks about how the leading diagnostic chain tackled Covid-19, expansion plans and the key focus areas of focus for the healthcare sector

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Let us begin by talking a little bit about the third wave. There have been reports that the case numbers are increasing. So what do you think? 
The third wave may not happen or it may be milder than the second wave only if we follow the dictum of T3V, where people strictly follow Covid appropriate behaviour and the authorities extensively work on Test, Track, Treat (Isolate) and Vaccinate. Many experts have opined that the third wave can occur anytime till mid-November.

What are the challenges Dr Lal’s PathLabs faced? How many tests did you conduct over the first and the second wave, and how are you prepared for the third wave? 
During the first wave there was only one lab in India that was doing the testing for the Covid-19 virus, I along with a few other colleagues from other labs was invited by Dr Balram Bhargava for a conversation on how private labs can be involved in the fight against coronavirus. Amit Shah, the Home Minister had told Dr Bhargava, who is the Director General of ICMR, to involve private labs in the nations fight against Covid-19. It was in March that we were called and from that time onward there are more than nearly 1,500 RT-PCR labs out of which, 60 percent are private. It is not a bad number and the number of tests that have been done are approximately 38 crore. Of this, 60 per cent of tests were done privately. We at Dr Lal PathLabs have done more than 2.5 million tests.

What were the specific challenges that you faced when undertaking RT-PCR tests? 
The most important challenge was that there was no material for testing available in India, off the shelf. Indian suppliers were coming up and we were also arranging for material to come from foreign suppliers.

Looking at it from the point of view of infrastructure, we have really got to up our game to be able to deal with an eventuality like Covid- 19. We need to increase the spend on healthcare, and there has to be a lot more public–private partnership etc. What in your opinion are the other key aspects we need to focus on? 
The first thing is that we should take care not to announce victory over COVID-19 prematurely, unlike in January 2021, when politicians, bureaucrats, and many others, had claimed victory over COVID-19. This translated into a false sense of normal times coming back amongst people, who let down their guard and this led to the second wave, which was four times more aggressive than the first.

Secondly, we should learn to create infrastructure very quickly and not dismantle it soon afterwards. We should take the help of the Indian Army and learn from them how we can make rapidly deployable hospitals with ICUs, especially in rural areas and smaller towns. We will also need to mobilise additional healthcare workers to run these hospitals. India adds nearly 75,000 to 80,000 doctors a year and we hear that additionally, final year medical students and interns are being trained to take on Covid duties. Also, additional healthcare workers should be mobilized and incentivized to work in Covid wards. Many such recommendations have been submitted and the government is already working on some of these.

The key to avoiding the third wave and to keep yourself safe is to vaccinate. We have faced a lot of criticism on how we gave away our vaccines, and ran short of doses. What do you have to say about the slow pace of the vaccination programme?
There are two aspects to this – One is that you have to make available sufficient quantity of both indigenous and imported vaccines. The Government has declared that all adults shall be vaccinated by December 2021, for which we would require 190 crore doses of the vaccines. The good news is that now we have five vaccines available viz. Covishield, Covaxin, Sputnik V, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

The second thing is that the current pace of vaccination is very slow. We should be vaccinating about 88 lakh people a day, whereas the number had come down to an average of 30 lakh in the last month. Looking at this, we are not going to reach the set target of vaccinating 95 crore people by end December. It is my special appeal to the Government to go on a blitzkrieg mass media campaign that includes all TV channels, all FM Radio Stations, all newspapers, to highlight the importance of vaccination against COVID-19. This way, people will be motivated to get themselves vaccinated quickly and vaccine hesitancy will be also be reduced. Additionally, the Government should authorize any doctor, nurse, other healthcare workers who can give an intra-muscular injection, to join in this national effort immediately.

Talking about the vaccine doses sent abroad, 6.6 crore of doses were sent to 93 countries both under an international COVAX agreement and also as a part of vaccine diplomacy. This ensured the availability of vaccine to poor countries.

What are the expansion plans for Dr Lal PathLabs? Any immediate plans to expand in rural India? 
We are pretty well represented in most of the metro towns, though we are better represented in the north, central and east rather than in the west and south India. We are currently running about 234 labs all over India, and about 5,000 odd collection centres. Some of the large hospitals also outsource their tests to us. As for rural India, it is not financially or operationally viable to build labs. However, now with the advent of Covid-19 we are preparing a rural model where we collect the samples and bring them to a testing lab. We are planning to expand to Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns as well.

(This article has been published in the magazine dated 2 -16 August 2021)