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Rising sales of COVID home test kits worry officials

Self-test kits for COVID-19 are flying off the shelves in Bengaluru amidst fears of a third wave. Stores in the city have registered an uptick in sales of home-test kits, essentially the rapid antigen tests. And health officials are a worried lot as many citizens, who have mild flu-like symptoms or those who have to travel frequently, are relying on the results of these home tests.

Chandan Hiremath, a software engineer who is scheduled to travel to Germany next week, used one such kit to ease his fears and ensure that his travel plans were not derailed. As it happened, he tested negative.

But what if he had tested positive? Unless citizens voluntarily report the results and agree to take an RT-PCR test from a certified facility, the government has no way to capture this data.

“Had I tested positive, even if I wanted to report it, I wouldn’t know how to contact the civic body,” said Mr. Hiremath.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in its recent letter to all States and Union territories, recommended the use of self-tests/home tests for symptomatic individuals. But the lack of any mechanism to capture positive cases through home tests, unless individuals report it themselves, is a cause for concern.

Though home tests have been in the market for a few months now, sales have gone up only since December 2021, in the backdrop of the Omicron scare and the subsequent rise in cases in Bengaluru. “We now sell anywhere between 15-30 kits every day in each of our shops,” said the regional manager of a pharmacy chain in the city.

Secretary of the Bengaluru Chemists and Druggists Association Ravindra Kumar M. J. said test kits cost between ₹250-₹350 and are as easy to use as pregnancy test kits. “Many people who are travelling frequently or are worried that they have COVID-19 have begun using them,” he said.

But what happens if those who test positive but have only mild symptoms do not isolate for the entire duration of the infection or self-medicate? “During the peak of earlier waves of the pandemic, the government had mandated us to take down details of those buying cold, cough and fever medicines. Such a mechanism may be one of the options to track these cases, but presently there are no such instructions,” Mr. Ravindra Kumar said.

Chief Civic Commissioner of Bengaluru Gaurav Gupta acknowledged the problem the home test kits pose, both in terms of capturing accurate data and curtailing the spread of the virus. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is trying to devise a mechanism to capture the data of positive cases from home tests.

A senior civic health official said home tests, essentially rapid antigen tests, had good accuracy in case of a positive result, but could be misleading in the case of negative results. “If a person has COVID-19 like symptoms, s/he better get themselves a RT-PCR test even if they test negative in a home test,” he said.