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COVID-19 tests must be free: Supreme Court

Test and sample virus crown covid virus 19. COVID-19 tests illustration.
Image credit: ambrozinio / 123rf

The Supreme Court has weighed on the testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by serious acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV2) – often referred to as coronavirus. The country’s apex legal body has ruled that COVID-19 tests must be free of charge. 

The interim decision applies to all laboratories in the country with accreditation by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) or with the approval of the World Health Organization (WHO) or Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Ravindra Bhat issued the decision in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by petitioner Shashank Deo Sudhi.

The petition came after the ICMR permitted the private sector to charge for COVID-19 tests, albeit capped at Rs 4,500. The petition argued that “it is extremely difficult for the common citizen to get himself/herself tested in the government hospital/labs and being no alternative in the sight, the people are constrained to pay the capped amount to the private hospital/labs for protecting their lives.” It argued that the charging for COVID-19 tests in such facilities amounted to “strikes at the Article 14 of the Constitution of India as being arbitrary and unreasonable.” 

The Supreme Court agreed. Taking cognisance of the Union Government’s missive that COVID-19 tests in publicly-run laboratories are free of charge and ordering that the same be the case in privately-run labs, the bench directed that authorities “issue necessary direction in this regard immediately.” 

The Justices took note of the current situation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and infected more than one million people globally. India alone has seen 6,237 fall ill due to contracting the coronavirus and 186 people have died as a consequence. 

“The number of patients suffering from COVID-19 is rapidly increasing worldwide with [the] death toll rising rapidly,” the Supreme Court said. “In our country, in spite of various measures taken by the government of India and different state governments/union territories, the number of patients and death caused by it is increasing day by day.”

93998254 - new delhi india - october 28, 2017: people visit supreme court of india in new delhi
The Supreme Court, whose decision has been praised by some but criticised by others.

All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN) co-convenor Malini Aisola welcomed the decision to make COVID-19 tests free. “AIDAN, along with other health groups, had written to the government to make testing as well as treatment for Covid-19 free,” she told The Economic Times. “We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s direction that the government make Covid-19 testing free of cost, regardless of whether the testing takes place through government or private labs.”

The Court said that “private hospitals including labs have an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis.” However, some voices in the private sector have been critical of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

Concerns have been raised previously about the rate of COVID-19 tests. It is arguable that pricing of tests could pose a barrier to individuals wishing to avail them and hamper the testing rate. Yet an argument can also be had that lost funding will dissuade private laboratories from carrying out COVID-19 tests entirely. 

“Humanitarian in intent but impractical to implement – I fear testing will plummet,” said Biocon Limited executive chairperson Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of the Supreme Court decision. She added that private facilities “simply cannot be asked to run their businesses on credit.” 

The Supreme Court, however, has not ruled out remuneration for private laboratories. “Don’t allow them to charge for testing people,” commented Justice Bhushan. “A mechanism can be created for disbursement from [the] Government for the tests.”

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