Union Government privatises HIV testing services

In a significant move the Union health ministry has outsourced the entire process of conducting viral load tests for patients infected with Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV) to two companies — multi-national Pharma giant Abbott and a chain of Indian labs, Metropolis.

Up to Rs 650 crore are being spent on privatising HIV testing services with the aid of Abbott and Metropolis. There are an estimated 21 lakh persons in India living with HIV (PLHIV) who require to get their viral load tested. However, only close to 12 lakh are on government rolls for seeking anti-retroviral therapy (ART). “We announce free viral load testing for every PLHIV from now on,” said Union Health Minister JP Nadda. Until now, viral load testing was not available for every HIV patient. Only when a patient stopped reacting to first line Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs and developed drug-resistance were they referred for testing viral load.

While currently there are only 10 viral load testing machines in each of the 113 state reference laboratories (SRLs) in India, MoHFW has procured 80 more machines from Abbott to be installed in SRLs. Abbott has been awarded the contract for six years at a whopping expense of close to Rs 500 crore. “Each machine costs close to Rs 1 crore, including maintenance and running costs. This will include conducting viral load tests,” an official from Abbott told DNA.

Abbott will conduct one viral load test at the cost of Rs 500-600. “While in the first year, we are targeting to conduct 2 lakh tests, we will gradually scale up to between 10 to 12 lakh tests by the sixth year,” said the official.

Meanwhile, MoHFW has signed a contract with Metropolis labs for conducting viral load tests too. Metropolis however charges Rs 1200 per test to the exchequer, while Abbott is conducting these tests at half the price. An official raised a red flag for awarding two varying contracts are differential pricing for meting out the same services to private companies, on the sidelines of the official announcement.

According to UNAIDS India figures, it was estimated that 68,000 persons died of HIV/AIDS in the country for the lack of viral load testing.

India has the world’s third largest number of persons living with HIV, an estimated 21 lakh. Of these, over 12 lakh are registered on government rolls. Up to 9 lakh patients have yet not been picked up under the National AIDS Control Programme. (Agencies)