Chennai-based Neuberg Diagnostics has offered to carry out genomic testing on Covid-19 positive samples to support the government’s efforts to trace the presence of virus mutants like Omicron. India does not allow private laboratories to carry out genomic analysis of the Covid-19 virus at the moment. The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a grouping of 10 National Laboratories, are only permitted to conduct such analysis to study different types of Covid-19 variants circulating in the country.
“India is doing very little genetic testing compared to several other countries. The government has limited facilities. We need to increase it as even treatment protocols vary from one Covid-19 variant to another as we have seen during the first and second waves of infections in India”, GSK Velu, Chairman and Managing Director, Neuberg, says.
According to Velu, a couple of Indian laboratories, including Neuberg, can do genetic testing. “Currently government is doing it themselves; they are not allowing private labs to do genomic testing. We have been telling the government labs to permit private labs to do it. Ideally, about 10% of positive samples should undergo genetic testing as routine. Some countries are doing even up to 90%. For instance, Israel is doing genomic testing on almost every positive sample”, he tells.
Incidentally, the South African government has asked Neuberg to set up a Covid-19 genetic testing facility in that country. “We run three Covid-19 testing facilities in South Africa. We don’t do genetic testing there, but the government of South Africa wants us to do genetic testing. We are currently in discussion with them”, Velu says.
Neuberg has 125 operational labs. While most of them are in India, the company also has a presence in South Africa, West Asia and the U.S. Velu said Neuberg aims to have 200 labs and 2000 collection points with an investment in the range of ₹100–200 crore in the next one year. The company also aims to have at least one genomic lab in every region of India. “We intend to have a genomic lab in Delhi by the next quarter”, he says.
As of November 29, India had sequenced 102,880 Covid-19 positive samples through INSACOG laboratories. The country had by then tested 3.46 crore Covid-19 positive cases cumulatively.
Velu says that the cost of genetic testing can also be brought down as in the case of RT-PCR tests once there are sufficient volumes. “Originally the genetic testing may cost ₹10,000 but with volumes, it can come down to ₹5,000. Even RT-PCR started with ₹4,500, so once the volume goes up, the genetic testing cost can also come down further, even in the ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 range”, he says.
The issue is not just about Omicron. “We need to ramp up genetic testing capability. Omicron is not going to be the end of the variant. There is going to be many more variants coming until the next three years. So genetic testing has to become part of our testing protocol. Even though we may not require 1000 labs, but there should be at least 50 to 100 labs that can do it”, Velu elucidates.
Four-year-old Neuberg has moved out of its traditional strongholds in the south and west India and made a foray into the north too. The company has just announced the launch of 10 diagnostics labs and over 100 sample collection centres across Delhi, Chandigarh, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.