“Shoot Us! Shoot Us! Shoot Us!”
On the morning of March 13, many Indians, stuck at the Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi after coming back from Frankfurt and Paris, were repeatedly screaming ‘shoot us’.
According to an India Today report, airport authorities were not letting passengers arriving exit the airport before going under quarantine for at least 14 days. It is important to note that airport authorities were abiding by the rules set by the health ministry recently, making it mandatory for arrivals from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain, and Germany to go under quarantine for at least 14 days.
While support came from the health ministry, the incident threw light on just how panic has been created among certain sets of masses due to the pandemic and the travel restrictions. Many have said that given India’s healthcare system, the country needs to involve private sector players in research and testing to check the spread of coronavirus and Covid-19 in India.
Speaking to Inc42, CEO of healthtech startup Omnicuris Savitha Kuttan said that the number of COVID-19 testing kits available with the government can only test 30K people in a country of over 1.3 Bn individuals.
Also, a BBC report said that so far the government has tested around 14,175 people till Thursday (March 18). The report also highlighted the fact that India has a low number of testing kits and that’s why it is testing only selective cases. So far, nearly 360 positive cases of coronavirus have been registered in India along with four deaths.
Overall, India is diagnosing around 10 people per million which is very less as compared to other countries battling this crisis. As of now, Slovakia is testing the highest number of citizens (around 447 people per million). Even Pakistan is testing 16 individuals per million, according to Reuters.
While the number of coronavirus cases is expected to spike massively in the weeks ahead, there is no clarity about how the government will increase coronavirus diagnostics and availability of testing kits in these tough times. In this situation, the government needs major support from private players.
Earlier, while the government seemed to be very not keen on the idea of involving private companies, it has now allowed private players to start diagnosing people. According to a TOI report, some private players, who had applied for a license for performing coronavirus diagnostic tests, were still stuck in red tape.
But with the recent decision, India looks to have a better chance of standing tall against the epidemic. As of now, the government is looking to allow private diagnostic companies to conduct Covid-19 tests but with certain limitations. The government has capped the price of this test at INR 4500. So far, Trivitron Healthcare and Switzerland-based Roche Diagnostics are allowed to provide the test kits to diagnostics centres in India.
One such startup which is trying to get the licence from the government is Delhi-based Redcliffe Life Sciences. Founder Dheeraj Jain told us that it already has facilities to conduct the diagnostic tests. “We are planning the ramp-up if we get all the permissions, manpower, and approved kits soon,” he added.
It is worth noting that the US government had allotted necessary licenses, within 24 hours of application, to two private players to conduct diagnostic tests at large scale. On the other hand, the Indian government is not only delaying the approval of licenses for Indian healthtech players, but is also placing orders for more diagnostic kits from international companies. “The government must join hands with private players, especially healthtech startups to amp up the testing,” Omnicuris’ Kuttan said.
With this mounting pressure on the government, health ministry officials, last week, finally said that the centre will soon partner with private players to scale up diagnosis across the country.
Kuttan also suggested that healthtech startups can help the government with an online assessment tool along with virtual care screening. This will help the medical facilities to determine if patients need further evaluation or testing. “If they do, they can be asked to visit an authorised testing centre or provide them with home-based testing kits that they can get from nearby healthcare centres,” she added.
Can Healthtech Startups Stand Up To The Pandemic Challenge?
Large-scale diagnosis is surely a challenge in front of the government. But is it the only hurdle in front of the government? Experts suggest ‘no’. Speaking to Inc42, they said that there is a lack of proper infrastructure, data, tracking of quarantined individuals, among others.
Recently, UK-based economist Jim O’Neill said that thankfully the coronavirus outbreak started in China and not in a country like India. He also criticised the Indian governance model for not reacting fast to this situation.
However, experts suggest that the condition is not in that bad shape in India, thanks to the recent advancements in healthcare technology which are majorly fueled by emerging healthtech startups in the country. So, while the government might have missed the chance to work with healthtech startups for diagnosis, it can surely rely on them for other healthcare aspects to prevent coronavirus from spreading in the country.
Dr Mukesh Sarna, additional director of internal medicine at Fortis Escorts Hospital, Jaipur, said that while India is not so behind in terms of capacity to tackle new epidemics, still, there are some points for improvement. “In India, the number of beds in isolation wards are less and if coronavirus pandemic spreads further than the situation can get worse. Also, protective gears, which are quite costly, for doctors and nurses are not readily available in India,” Dr Sarna noted.
In times to come, the situation is expected to get even worse. To tackle this, the government’s efforts need to get a major push from the private sector, especially from the healthtech startups. These startups can provide the government with solutions to tackle the upcoming challenge posed by a coronavirus in an efficient and effective way.
According to healthtech startup Predible Health cofounder Suthirth Vaidya, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the diagnosis, containment, and care for all affected by the Covid-19 disease. Predible works with respiratory illness diagnosis, which is one of the key focus areas for the Covid-19 disease too. But he believes that there is enough room for healthtech startups to support the government in these aspects. “Healthtech startups will be able to support the government to mitigate the impact of coronavirus,” Vaidya said.
Besides diagnostics, startups leveraging new-age technologies can also provide the government with other solutions such as large-scale screening at public places by checking body temperature and datasets to act faster and smarter, telemedicine for medical consultation, apps for disseminating credible information faster, among others. Redcliffe Life Science’s Jain is optimistic that healthtech startups can even curb the coronavirus outbreak by developing the vaccine for it.
Cofounder and CEO of Tattvan E Clinic Ayush Mishra said that healthtech startups have access to the world’s best expertise, which the government can use. They can develop solutions to prevent coronavirus from spreading to the inferior parts of the country, he added.
How Are Indian Healthtech Startups Helping The Coronavirus Fight?
According to Datalabs by Inc42, there are over 4800 healthtech startups in India till 2018. These startups are leveraging new-age technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) to develop solutions which are effective in these situations.
For instance, Bengaluru-based home healthcare services provider Portea Medical has launched a chatbot named Cobot-19. Company’s MD and CEO Meena Ganesh said that Cobot-19, which is launched in association with Verloop.io and the state government of Goa, accessible via WhatsApp and is envisaged to be a one-
stop-source for the dissemination of all information related to Covid-19 such as symptoms, precautions and helpline details etc.
As of now, this chatbot is available in English and Konkani on Whatsapp number +91-7948058218. It can be activated by saving the number to the contacts list on their phone.
Similarly, other startups are also coming up with unique propositions to challenge the situation. Bengaluru-based healthtech platform Practo has launched a health plan which offers unlimited online doctor consultations, starting at INR 399 per month.
According to Practo’s chief healthcare strategy officer Dr Alexander Kuruvilla, the coronavirus pandemic has created a sense of panic as new cases are being reported every day.
“The overlap in symptoms of coronavirus and the common cold, has made it quite difficult to distinguish between the two. Hence, people are not shying away from consulting doctors even for the mildest of the symptoms,” Kuruvilla.
Bengaluru-based doctor consultation app mfine has also partnered with Sarvodaya Hospital Delhi to provide mobile assessment for patients showing symptoms of Covid-19. The startup will help patients to detect probable cases of Covid-19 and help in asserting if a patient requires immediate attention or not.
Another Bengaluru-based healthtech startup which has developed a unique solution to prevent the spread of coronavirus is Bione. The startup has developed a genetic test to check every individual’s susceptibility to the coronavirus. The test, which combines with Bione’s predictive analysis tools, is said to be providing recommendations to individuals to strengthen their immunity against the virus.
Previously, Bengaluru-based insurtech startup Digit Insurance launched an insurance product for coronavirus-impacted individuals in India. People can opt for an insurance cover which ranges from INR 25K to INR 2 Lakh. The minimum premium for the insurance is INR 299 per month.