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Data: COVID-19 Testing in India & other Countries

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There has been criticism from multiple quarters about the low COVID-19 testing rates in India. In the past few weeks, a significant improvement in the testing rate is achieved. How does this compare with other countries? Here is an analysis.

A tweet from the BJP’s official Twitter handle ( @BJP4India), on 16 April  2020, states that the scale of COVID-19 testing being conducted in India at the benchmark of 5 thousand cases and 10 thousand cases is among the largest in the world, higher than that of UK, USA & Italy.

The infographic provided in the tweet contains the details of the number of tests conducted by India on the day the total number of COVID-19 positive cases crossed 5000 and 10000 mark respectively.  Data pertaining to, USA, UK, Italy and Canada are also provided in the infographic for comparison.

As per this information, India has conducted around 1.14 lakh tests by the time 5000 Covid-19 cases were identified. In comparison, the USA, UK and Italy conducted fewer tests when the first 5000 cases were reported. Meanwhile, Canada has conducted more than 2.41 lakh tests when 5000 cases were reported.

It took around 2.17 lakh tests for India to identify 10 thousand cases, while the numbers for the USA, UK and Italy were significantly less as per the infographic shared by the BJP.

COVID-19 Testing in India_Number of tests conducted on the date the country crossed the benchmark

As it appears, the intent of the is to justify and rebut the allegation that India is not testing enough and hence the number of positive cases reported are fewer than other countries.

In this story, we take a look at this claim and compare the data with testing numbers of some other countries.  A consolidated official source for COVID-19 numbers for all the countries is not available. However, information from various countries has been aggregated at websites like  Ourworldindata.org, who collate the information from various official sources

The data from this source does tally with the numbers mentioned in the infographic tweeted by the BJP. The numbers also match with the official government sources of the respective countries mentioned in the tweet.

Tests conducted by India among the highest at the 40 thousand cases mark

India has recently crossed 40 thousand COVID-19 positive cases. As per the available data, India conducted nearly 10.5 lakh tests to reach this number.  Testing information is not available for a few of the countries with a high number of cases like – Spain, Russia, Brazil, Iran etc.  to compare the data.

Among the countries for which the testing information is available, India has conducted the highest number of tests to identify 40 thousand cases. It is followed by Germany, which has conducted around 9.6 lakh tests on the day its number of positive cases have crossed 40 thousand. Canada, USA and Peru are among the countries which conducted a greater number of tests to identify its first 40 thousand cases.

Meanwhile, France, U.K, Italy & Belgium have conducted the least number of tests to identify 40 thousand cases. Among these countries, Germany has conducted more tests to identify its first 20 thousand cases, followed by India.

COVID-19 Testing in India_Number of tests conducted by 20K and 40K cases

South Korea and Canada have conducted more tests than India to detect 5 thousand and 10 thousand cases

Few countries have fared well in controlling the spread of COVID-19. South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Israel etc. are few such examples.  One of the main reasons cited for this is the aggressive testing carried out by them.

Since most of these countries have just over 10 thousand positive cases so far, we have considered 5 thousand and 10 thousand cases as the benchmarks to compare the number of tests conducted.  

India has conducted a greater number of tests to identify its first 5 thousand and 10 thousand cases than most of these countries as well. However, South Korea and Canada have conducted a greater number of tests compared to India. Canada required around 2.41 lakh tests to detect 5 thousand cases i.e. more than double the number of tests conducted by India at that benchmark.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tests conducted to identify 10 thousand cases, South Korea is ahead of the others by a significant margin with 4.43 lakh tests, compared to 2.17 lakh tests in India. New Zealand is another country which did proactive testing, that has limited the total number of cases as on 03 May to around 1,100 cases for which 1.5 lakh tests were done.

COVID-19 Testing in India_Number of tests conducted to detect 5K and 10K cases

India slightly better than other countries in terms of tests per confirmed case

Since the total number of positive cases in a country can be dependent on the population, the number of tests conducted for a specific benchmark of positive cases may not be the right basis of comparison between the countries.

Furthermore, each of the countries is at a different stage of the outbreak. For example, the number in the USA is upwards of 11 lakh cases, whereas Italy & Spain have more than 2 lakh cases. Hence it would not be prudent to compare their historical data with India which has just crossed 40 thousand cases. Hence, the number of tests per confirmed case could be a better yardstick for comparison.

As per the current available numbers, India has one positive case per every 26 tests conducted.

Vietnam has the highest number of tests per positive case with 966. This is exponentially higher than any of the other countries.  Taiwan and New Zealand which have conducted proactive testing are among the countries with a greater number of tests per positive case detected with 149 and 132 tests respectively.

South Korea which also followed a very planned approach to the testing has detected a positive case per every 59 tests. Italy detected a positive case for every 10 tests, while the USA & UK have positive cases for every 6.2 and 4.7 tests respectively.

COVID-19 Testing in India_Number of tests per confirmed cases

India still lags behind in terms of tests conducted per million

Over the past few weeks, India has significantly ramped up the number of tests being conducted to detect COVID-19. As per the information provided by MOHFW, around 11 lakh samples were tested as on 04 May 2020. This is a significant increase compared to around 69 thousand tests conducted as on 04 April 2020. Further, more than 60 thousand tests were conducted in a day on 03 May 2020.

However, because of the huge population, the testing rates in the country are still on the lower end.  In an earlier story, we have highlighted the lower number of tests in India compared to other countries. In spite of the significant increase in the number of tests, India is among the countries with the least tests per million population.

As of date, India conducts around 800 tests per million population. In comparison, UK conducts around 17,700 tests per million, while Italy conducts more than 35 thousand tests per million population. Meanwhile, USA which is one of the countries mentioned in BJP’s tweet conducts more than 21 thousand tests per million.

COVID-19 Testing in India_Number of tests per million population

Testing strategies vary from country-country, hence comparisons can be misleading

The response of Italy, Spain, U.K and a few other European countries has been slow as they were the first few countries that were hit by the pandemic outside of China. By the time the testing was initiated at a large scale, many people were already infected. This is reflected in the smaller number of tests per positive case i.e. the fewer tests conducted at the point of each benchmark being reached in terms of positive cases.

The USA also has a similar story, with the number of cases exploding and mitigating efforts not even across the country. On the contrary, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Korea etc. have been proactive in taking the required measures to contain the spread. Hence the number of tests per COVID-19 positive case detected is higher. Vietnam has also been receiving plaudits in the way it has contained COVID-19.

Tests per million is another yardstick which reveals the intensity of the tests being carried out in a country.  India faces a unique situation because of the size of its population that poses a challenge to conduct extensive testing. In spite of the significant increase in the number of tests per day, the number per million is quite low because of the huge population in the country.  Ramping up the testing infrastructure while the country is in Lockdown mode is being suggested by many. 

On the other hand, a smarter approach is being suggested to make optimum utilization of available resources, by limiting testing to the most probable ones. In either case, the need is to develop a testing strategy suited to the country, rather than a uniform approach. Hence such comparison may be misleading.  

Featured Image: COVID-19 Testing in India and Other Countries

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