Chennai-based Trivitron Healthcare could well be the first company in India to make an indigenous ready-to-use kit to test coronavirus. G S K Velu, the chairman and managing director of the company says he aims to supply the kit at one-fifth of the similar imported kits currently available in the market. His focus is to make the kit indigenously, which he claims is the only way to reduce the cost per test to as low as Rs 500 compared to a few thousands today.
The real price is not yet available as private players like Trivitron cannot test coronavirus in India, while the pricing can only be calculated based on the volumes, that is, the number of tests conducted.
What is the current status of the kits? "Our prototype is ready and we will be sending it to National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune by next week for clinical validation. Hopefully we should be able to launch it in next few weeks," he says. The reason why he can reduce the cost is because he is "trying to make probes and primers with local biotech companies". Today, these are being imported.
One method of doing the test today is what in the industry lingo is called a home brew method, where probes and primers, the two crucial components of the kits are used along with an available test protocol. The other method is by using a ready-to-use kit, the kind the Velu is talking about. It is a complete kit with all the components required for conducting a coronavirus test. The components being Probes, Primers, Master Mix, Calibrators and Controls. There are a handful of companies globally such as Roche and Thermo Fisher that make such kits. These MNCs have big presence in India.
Once the private labs are allowed to start testing for coronavirus, many of these labs could start using these kits. However, Velu claims that the USP of his kit is that it is indigenous and can be available at one-fifth the price of its international equivalents. The price of a kit, he says, is linked to the number of tests it can handle. There are two variants in that - one that can do 96 tests (96 different samples), which will be priced at around Rs 50,000 and the other that can handle 360 tests will be be priced at around Rs 1.8 lakh. These, he says, will still be less than the cost of other kits in the market that range between Rs 4 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. It translates to higher cost per test as using costly imported kits could take the per test price to anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 9,000, whereas his aim is to provide a kit that can make the testing possible for just Rs 500. "Right now, the ready-to-use kits are very expensive therefore even the ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) is using primers and probes from different companies and doing the tests. This is only for emergency and therefore we are focused on affordability and to increase testing in India and later the price could be increased."
So, how did he manage to do this in just two months? "We already have a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test manufacturing centre in Chennai and a joint venture company in China. Unfortunately, even before we could make the announcement, coronavirus-led emergency hit China. Our joint venture partner there launched a PCR kit and we also got the expertise and support from them." PCR is a method of test that relies on genetic mapping of a virus.