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COVID-19 Home-Testing Kits and Market in India

Jul 16, 2021 5:37 AM 5 min read

American pharma giant Abbott has launched Panbio, its at-home COVID-19 rapid antigen test (RAT) kit, in India.

The test can be bought for ₹325 ($4.37) at pharmacies and provides results within 15 minutes. It has reportedly demonstrated 95.7% sensitivity and 97.6% specificity when benchmarked against typical RT-PCR tests.

All in all, Abbott expects to deliver 7 million kits by the end of July and aims to target both urban and rural areas so as to reach "more than 80%" of the population.

The Panbio test is already available in other countries. Since August 2020, over 200 million of these tests have been shipped to more than 100 countries around the world.

RATs in India

Abbott is not the first company to provide COVID home testing kits in India.

Back in May, Pune-based Mylab Discovery Solutions launched Coviself, the first ICMR-approved RAT in the country. Other tests are also available in the market, including COVIFIND, developed by Vapi-based Meril Diagnostics, and a test developed by IIT-Delhi students.


Test, Test, Test...and Test Again!

Now, the importance of testing people for the coronavirus is a no-brainer.

Rampant and reliable testing does two critical things. One, it identifies positive cases, who can then be isolated from the rest of society to recover whilst the requisite contact tracing is done. And two, it brings down the test positivity rate, a metric that can accurately judge a country's coronavirus response.

In the early days of the pandemic, an acute shortage of materials that went into a testing kit - swabs, for instance - raised worries about an enduring and catastrophic supply crunch. Over time, industries banded together, manufacturing was accelerated, and a crisis was averted.

Well, more or less. In India, testing kit shortages have been a recurring theme. They continued to plague the country’s coronavirus response well into the Second Wave. This, coupled with the fact that some states actively worked to reduce overall testing - possibly to artificially bring down numbers - not only cast doubt on official pandemic-related stats, but also undermined India’s battle against the virus.

Bottom line being, besides vaccines, testing is probably the most crucial element in the fight against COVID-19.


How Do Self-Test Kits Work?

Let's look at Coviself. The kit includes a sterile swab, an extraction tube, a disposable bag, a user manual and a "test card". Individuals collect a nasal sample using the swab provided, roll it around a few times, and immerse it in the extraction tube liquid.

A drop of this mixture is then placed on the test card using the swab. After 15 minutes, a line on the card indicates whether the result is positive or not. Here's a video of the process.


COVID-19 Home-Testing: Pros and Cons

RATs have some obvious advantages. You don’t need to visit overcrowded hospitals or even venture out to get tested - a big bonus considering social distancing requirements. They are also rapid - it's in the name, after all - revealing results in a matter of minutes. Naturally, they also reduce the burden on health systems.

However, every coin has two sides. Home testing kits are not as accurate as their outdoor counterparts and can thus be misleading sometimes. For instance, a symptomatic person can still test negative on a RAT even if they are actually infected. This risk of false positives or false negatives is why ICMR recommends symptomatic cases to also take an RT-PCR test - the gold standard - for absolute surety.

Moreover, since these tests are self-administered, there’s always the worry of a person not collecting enough nasal material. The specimen may be insufficient for an effective test or the testing itself could be done way too early after exposure when there aren’t many viral particles to detect in the first place (yet).


Market Dynamics

Given the emergence of new variants, slow pace of vaccinations in many countries, and vaccine inequalities, the pandemic might not end anytime soon. In the medium-term, booster shots may also be required to revamp immunity. It is highly probable that the pandemic might reduce to the occasional epidemic: it might be possible to control COVID-19, but humanity would be forced to live with it in the long run.

If the virus continues to circulate amongst populations, people would inadvertently have to be continuously tested to keep it under control. Essentially, this means that demand for testing kits is likely to be robust even after “normalcy” returns and economies reopen. Ergo, demand for home-testing kits could also remain high.

All in all, the at-home COVID-19 testing market is estimated to grow with a CAGR of 8.2% until 2026.


Side Note: The Plastic Pandemic

Much has been written about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on industries, markets, geopolitics, inflation, businesses etc. One area where the pandemic’s ramifications are often overlooked is its impact on the environment.

And not the picture-perfect positive stories of reduced air pollution enabling the Himalayas to become visible from Jalandhar or the reduced industrial effluents making the Ganga non-foggy for the first time in living memory.

Specifically, the world’s fight against plastic. From testing and diagnosis to prevention and treatment, COVID-19’s path is littered with an over-dependence on plastic. Face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, aprons, swabs, disposal bags, testing kits (home and otherwise) - all these items require plastic directly or indirectly. As such, plastic pollution has skyrocketed, reversing a gradual trend over the years of state and civilian action against plastic usage.

An estimated 3.4 billion single-use face masks alone are discarded daily around the world. With over 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves being used every month, all of these materials contribute to a surge in hazardous wastes, much of which is either left to rot in landfills or discarded in oceans.

And with the virus not going away anytime soon, expect the fight against plastic to remain derailed for way too long.


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