Samples arbitrarily declared inappropriate, say Indore college officials

A series of copies of communication between the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College, Indore, and its virology laboratory tasked with testing samples for COVID-19 has revealed that the authorities directed the testing in-charge to declare clutches of samples “inappropriate”, without testing them or consulting virologists.

Declaring samples “inappropriate” warranted their recollection after disposal, a decision taken at the laboratory, explained an official of the Directorate of Health Services. “You can’t declare them as such before beginning the testing process,” she said.

“In this case, we were asked to deem them inappropriate even before putting them to test. We still have no clue why we got such orders from the top,” said an official, who worked at the laboratory, requesting anonymity.

Despite such directions, virologists tested most of the samples asked to be declared “inappropriate” between April 3 and 20. “Though we found a few to be actually inappropriate, we were surprised to find most samples either tested positive or negative, which also suggests they were valid samples. Declaring them inappropriate would mean they never get recorded as tested,” he said.

For instance, on April 3, of at least three samples asked to be declared inappropriate, one tested positive later. Similarly, on the list containing the details of eight samples on April 7, another tested positive. On April 4, 34 samples were requested to be declared inappropriate, explained the official.

The screen-grabs of conversations on WhatsApp, the social media platform virologists and college officials are using to coordinate work, reveal senior officials of the college forwarded a list every day in April at least to virologists to declare samples collected at three government facilities managed by the college as inappropriate.

In one such conversation on April 5 concerning Shatrughan Panjwani, the first medical doctor, a private practitioner, to die of COVID-19 in Indore four days later, an official overseeing the laboratory informs a senior official, after his first sample tested negative: “Sachin* [a virologist] is saying if we run the sample then we can’t give inappropriate sampling becos it is coming in machine record…we can give the report before processing.” (sic)

“We were being repeatedly nagged to declare results inappropriate,” said the official. To the message, the senior official replied: “Ok. Do it before running.”, and when subsequently asked, “Chest ward say jo sample aa rahe he [the samples that we are getting from the chest ward]…inappropriate sampling?”, she replies: “Yes.”

Claiming that the official had edited WhatsApp messages, college Dean Jyoti Bindal told The Hindu, “We have never placed such requests with our laboratory. I am totally denying it. The machine has a memory, which is directly stored on the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) portal.”

There was no one who could change any sample report, she asserted. “Senior consultants from the National Centre for Disease Control have examined our machines themselves. We have a transparent system. The only request I place with the laboratory is to expedite testing.”

Further, a professor of the college wrote around mid-May to the Madhya Pradesh Chief Secretary, the Principal Secretary, Medical Education, and the Divisional Commissioner, Indore, alleging manipulation of results in the laboratory.

Confirming the receipt of the email, Principal Secretary Sanjay Kumar Shukla said, “We had expected a detailed report from the college on this. But prima facie, this is all untrue. Any kind of alleged manipulation is completely baseless. This is my clear impression about the issue.”

Pointing out that all ICMR-approved laboratories, including the college’s, had to upload data on their portal the same day, Mr. Shukla said, “Every machine has a code. And the ICMR portal is tamper-proof. And manual manipulation is out of question.”

(*name changed)

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