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Inquiry into fake COVID-19 tests begins

The Kumbh Mela festival, attended by millions of people in Uttarakhand, may have used fake COVID-19 tests, generating more than 100,000 falsified records according to recent allegations.

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Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf

Media reports say fake names, mobile numbers, and addresses were used in more than 100,000 tests during the Kumbh festival in April. Such allegations add fuel to the fire of the claims that India’s actual COVID-19 case and death toll are far higher than are currently being reported.

Harsh criticism was already levelled against the festival for operating at a time when India had just overcome the first wave of COVID-19. Such mass gatherings have been suggested to be a primary cause for the rapid spread of the disease which has led to a second wave that all but dwarfed the first.

The festival, which saw more than a million individuals gathered, many without masks and with social distancing all but disregarded took place in mid-April, a time when cases had risen to just below 200,000 per day — double that of the first wave. Perhaps more distasteful was the fact that the festival was given the go ahead as many cities around the country were taking to social media to beg for medical oxygen and life saving supplies.

The festival, in theory, took precautions, operating under a daily quota for testing. Twenty-two private labs had been hired for the purpose by the district health department to conduct testing during the festival. The daily quota was set at 50,000 tests. It is alleged that after struggling to meet the quota, numerous tests were faked, entering the same mobile numbers, emails and addresses more than a hundred times.

A detailed probe was ordered by the Haridwar administration after the identification that many of these identities that were used repeatedly were taken from random identification cards. “Orders have been issued to file a case against labs from Delhi and Haryana, which conducted testing at five places in Haridwar during Kumbh Mela,” Subodh Uniyal, Uttarakhand government spokesperson, told ANI news agency.

This situation presents a clear issue. The festival was already noted as a potential superspreader event, though, with improper identification and therefore a clear lack of further contact tracing, it is a very real possibility that with so many individuals gathered from miles around, the virus will have been taken with them back to their home regions.

“If the test tells you that you are negative and you go and mingle with people who think you are safe, then hundreds and thousands of people will be at risk of getting the infection and cases will skyrocket,” Professor Gudlavalleti Murthy, director of the Public Health Foundation of India in Hyderabad, said.

Should such irregularities in the COVID-19 recording process be common, it is likely that the theory that figures are far higher than stated may be true. According to Dr Bhramar Mukherjee, a Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, who has been tracking India’s pandemic, approximately 1.2 million Indians had already died by May 15th. This figure is nearly four times higher than current official figures, numbering just higher than 380,000.

Data seems to confirm this theory. However, officially the higher figures are at this point speculative. Data from Andhra Pradesh, for example, shows over 130,000 deaths in May, nearly five times the number of fatalities for the same month in 2018 and 2019. A similar situation has been observed in Madhya Pradesh, in which three times the average monthly death rate had been reported across April and May this year.

Further theories on the matter relate to the overburdening of crematoriums. A Twitter thread in early May by Dr Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health stated

“India reports another 400,000+ cases, 4000+ [deaths per] day. A sustained level of horribleness. And [it’s] not correct. True number surely closer to 25,000 deaths, 2-5 million infections today” reads the Tweet. “During [the] non-pandemic year 2019. About 27,000 Indians died on [a] typical day. Crematoriums handle that level of deaths every day. Additional 4,000 deaths won’t knock them off their feet. Crematoriums across the country reporting 2-4X normal business.”

Health Issues India noted that the basis of the theory is that India, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, counted roughly 27,000 daily deaths on average. An additional 4,000 deaths, therefore, would not have caused the catastrophic disruptions to both the health system and the crematoriums. The additional 4,000 deaths has only occurred during the previously globally unheard of heights of the second wave, and even this figure may fall within the normal range of the 27,000 average deaths.

Incidents such as this can diminish trust in the healthcare system. With vaccine scepticism a very real threat in the fight against COVID-19, any lapses in trust and belief that the healthcare system is lying for political point scoring, or simply just to give the illusion of hitting targets can cause serious effects. The investigation is ongoing, but the damage has already been done, as many likely entered the crowds who would have tested positive had the tests been legitimate.

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