The Tamil Nadu government on April 27 announced that it will be returning the 24,000 rapid test kits imported from China. The announcement came hours after the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) asked states to stop using the COVID-19 rapid antibody kits procured from two Chinese companies, calling for the same to be sent back to the suppliers. The government and opposition DMK clashed over the pricing of the kits, with the latter demanding 'transparency' while the ruling dispensation asserted that the procurement was done based on rates fixed by the Centre.
The ICMR, the country's apex health research body, had told states it "evaluated the kits of Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech and Zhuhai Livson Diagnostics in field conditions". "The results have shown wide variation in their sensitivity, despite early promise of good performance for surveillance purpose", it said.
"As per the ICMR order, all 24,000 kits received by the Tamil Nadu government are being returned," Health Minister C Vijaya Baskar said in a statement. There was no "expenditure incurred" by the state government, he said, adding that all remaining orders were also being cancelled in line with the ICMR directive.
However, DMK President M K Stalin, who has been raising the pricing issue, questioned the rationale behind the 'sky-high' rate of the kits, purchased at Rs 600 per unit by the state government. He recalled that the DMK had earlier too alleged the kits were procured at higher rates and said some private entities made a profit out of this. However, the government only 'defended' itself on the matter, he said in a statement.
"What reply is the AIADMK government going to give for purchasing the kits at the sky-high price," the Leader of the said. There was "lack of transparency" in the matter, he alleged. Further, Chief Minister E Palaniswami should clarify whether the results of tests done using these kits were accurate, Stalin demanded. The government should not dismiss DMK's questions as "politics", he added. Hitting back at Stalin, Vijaya Baskar said the kits were procured from companies enlisted by the ICMR at rates fixed by the Centre, which he said was Rs 600, excluding taxes.
While ICMR approved the purchase of these kits early this month, all sections wanted to increase the number of tests by using them, the Minister said. "When the global demand was high, it was even difficult to buy them. But with the sole aim of ensuring more tests to protect the people," a particular dealer of the equipment was selected as per the Tender Transparency Act, he said. During this time, Andhra Pradesh (Rs 730) and Kerala (Rs 699) paid more per kit and even ICMR did the same for its second procurement order, by buying them at Rs 795, but Tamil Nadu stuck to Rs 600, he said.
"But the opposition in those states (apparently Kerala and Andhra Pradesh) did not make cheap politics out of it. It is a fact they aided the government(s) in (their) life-saving efforts," Vijaya Baskar added. Hitting out at Stalin, the Minister said it was "weird" that he questioned the pricing of Rs 600 for Tamil Nadu and charged him with carrying out a "campaign of lies."
"These campaign of lies will be useful only for mudslinging against the state government. It will never slow down its resolve to end the pandemic (by working) on a war footing," the Minister added. He said Tamil Nadu made an early start in its fight against COVID-19 by procuring the required medicines and medical equipment and that was the reason it has ensured a recovery rate of 56.8 percent, the "highest" in the country. Further, the fatality rate was 1.2 per cent, he pointed out.
Political parties should ponder over whether this was the time to gain "publicity" by targeting the government out of "vendetta", Vijaya Baskar said. The government, he said, was working on a 'war-footing' to stem the spread of the contagion and urged that attempts to make "baseless allegations" against the government be stopped forthwith.