New Delhi: Following a reveal by the Uttarakhand health department that around 400,000 COVID-19 test results issued during the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in April this year were fake, independent investigations carried out by media outlets have also revealed that this data obfuscated the real picture of the outbreak during the gathering.
The COVID-19 test scam came to light earlier this month after a man from Punjab, who had not visited Haridwar, received a COVID-19 negative report on his mobile phone from the Haridwar health department. He then lodged a complaint with the Indian Council of Medical Research.
Then, the Uttarakhand health authorities revealed that ICMR had asked the state health department to conduct a probe. “The complainant had claimed before the ICMR that when he went to attend the Mahakumbh, he had received an SMS that his samples have been collected for the test along with a proper valid ID number. However, he gave no samples. The ICMR, citing the complaint, asked the health department to verify it after which COVID-19 CCO conducted the inquiry,” a senior Uttarakhand health official was quoted as having said, by Hindustan Times.
A preliminary investigation was then conducted by the state’s chief controlling officer or CCO, of COVID-19, Dr Abhishek Tripathi. The probe found many irregularities in the way tests were conducted during the Mahakumbh, which took place just as the country was entering the second wave of the pandemic.
At least 50,000 of 100,000 tests conducted by a lab were fake
The CCO’s investigation found that a private laboratory conducted about 100,000 rapid antigen tests. “Of that one lakh tests, at least 50,000 are fake. It collected the samples in the above-mentioned fraudulent way and issued fake test reports of which most were negative… It most likely did this to siphon off money from the government because for a single rapid antigen test, it was to receive Rs 354 from the state government in Mahakumbh,” a state health official said to Hindustan Times.
Following this preliminary report, the Uttarakhand government ordered an investigation against all the nine private testing laboratories with which the Mela administration had signed a contract to conduct tests of those coming to attend the month-long fair.
Last Thursday, June 10, the state government spokesperson Subodh Uniyal said the probe was ordered “after the state’s COVID CCO in his report to state health secretary confirmed the irregularities in about 100,000 COVID-19 tests conducted by the laboratory in question”.
Stating that the laboratory in question has been “blacklisted”, the official said that in the preliminary probe it was found to have issued fake test reports for least 50,000 samples.
But now more damning facts have emerged about the scam.
Sample collectors never visited Haridwar
A report by The Times of India has claimed that while the preliminary investigation by the Uttarakhand health department said around 400,000 COVID-19 test results issued during Kumbh were fake, TOI‘s own investigation revealed that at least 100,000 reports were also forged by a private agency.
Moreover, it said, around 200 sample collectors shown to have been employed by the agency were students and data entry operators from Rajasthan who never visited Haridwar during that period.
The report points to how 50 people are registered against a single phone number while a single antigen test kit, which is meant for single use, was shown to have tested 700 samples. Also, the report said, many addresses and names were fictional and 530 test samples were shown to have been taken from a single house.
The report cited health officials as saying that the labs were under investigation and the investigation details have been forwarded to district magistrate of Haridwar.
Apart from this agency, eight more were deployed to collect and conduct tests.
Overall, 400,000 tests were conducted by nine agencies and 22 private labs during the Kumbh.
The test results contributed to showing a positivity rate of only 0.18% during the festival, against the overall positivity rate of 10% in Haridwar in April.
During the festival, nearly six million people visited Haridwar. Many of them took a bath in the Ganges during two of the main Shahi Snan days, April 12 and 14. The third day, April 27, saw restricted bathing as COVID-19 cases had spiked very significantly by then.
Experts have questioned how the government allowed mass gathering of people and bathing despite health experts warning that these could end up spreading the coronavirus and make the Kumbh a “superspreader event”.
The World Health Organisation also noted in May that the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar was allowed to continue despite the very clear risks associated with the event. It also noted that the Uttarakhand chief minister himself repeatedly told people that it was safe to attend – until it became very clear that was not the case and the government had to backtrack.