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Automated RNA extraction could significantly increase testing capacity; only 29 laboratories in India have it

Automated RNA extraction could significantly increase testing capacity; only 29 laboratories in India have it

New Delhi: As the Union Health ministry on Friday insisted that the COVID-19 positivity rate has been in control despite the increase in testing over the last month, laboratories in India do not have a key component that could increase India's testing capacity significantly compared to the current limit. As of April 24, data from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) showed that the country is currently conducting around 40,000 tests per 24 hours.

According to a research paper published by the ICMR COVID-19 team in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, automated RNA extraction machines would be able to significantly increase India's Coronavirus testing capacity and as of now, only 29 of the country's 321 testing laboratories are currently equipped with this machine.

An RNA extraction kit is used to isolate viral RNA from the patient's sample (throat and nasal swabs) so that it can be put through the RT-PCR test, which can then determine the presence of Coronavirus. According to ICMR officials who spoke to Millennium Post, 292 testing laboratories in the country are still relying on manual RNA extraction methods, which take up to two hours more to deliver results.

Earlier this month, the ICMR had invited bids to procure 160 automated RNA extraction machines and while the bid was only closed on April 20, the agency is yet to place an order for these machines that will ramp up the testing numbers.

According to the research paper authored by top ICMR scientists, while testing a batch of 45 samples, the run time to extract viral RNA per batch comes to around five hours per batch. However, with automated RNA extraction, this will be around three hours per batch, significantly increasing a laboratory's testing capacity. The paper was authored with the objective to see what interventions could be used to ramp up the testing numbers significantly.

One of the results of the analysis was that moving to a 24-hour shift would yield a capacity of 40,464 tests per day and if this is coupled with interventions such as using automated RNA extraction kits, redeploying older RT-PCR kits and using combination/multiplex kit, the testing capacity can be increased by up to 1.5 to two times.

Preliminary augmentation models run by the scientists showed that working on a nine-hour and 16-hour shift if all testing laboratories are equipped with automated RNA extraction kits, the number of tests per day could be increased by at least 10,800.

Moreover, the study also showed that if these machines are deployed at all labs and a 24-hour testing shift is adopted, automated RNA extraction machines themselves could contribute to a rise of over 21,000 tests per day.

An ICMR official said the order for the 160 automated RNA extraction machines will be placed soon and that they would be strategically deployed at COVID-19 labs across the country. "Right now, very few labs have automated RNA extraction machines," he said.

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