How fake COVID-19 tests may have contributed to India’s devastating outbreaks
The Indian government has launched an investigation into the (lack of) health safety measures at a massive religious festival. Here’s what we know so far
In April, crowds of Hindu pilgrims gathered for the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, India, on the bank of the Ganges River. The local government advertised the festival despite warnings from health experts that the event could lead to further COVID-19 spread, according to The New York Times.
- Kumbh Mela drew millions of pilgrims from across India, said The New York Times.
- By May, India faced a new peak in COVID-19 outbreaks that devastated the country, reported the Deseret News.
Two months later, a government investigation has found that at least 100,000 coronavirus tests conducted on pilgrims were faked, reported The Times of India. Supposedly, test results were faked to meet the daily government testing quotas required for holding the festival.
What is the Kumbh Mela festival?
Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival that lasted throughout the month of April and took place in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. The festival drew large — mostly maskless — crowds amid India’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, reported The New York Times.
- The Uttarakhand government reported low COVID-19 positivity rates among pilgrims tested, suggesting the festival was safe to attend, per The New York Times. Health officials questioned these reports, arguing they underreported coronavirus cases.
- Pilgrims traveled from all over India to celebrate with many testing positive after returning home to their villages, said The New York Times.
Massive festivals, like Kumbh Mela, are widely considered to have contributed to India’s deadliest wave of coronavirus outbreaks, reported the Deseret News. India has recorded almost 30 million COVID-19 cases and over 377,000 fatalities, according to June 15 data from John Hopkins University.
How were the COVID-19 tests faked?
Private agencies and labs conducted 400,000 rapid antigen tests during the Kumbh Mela festival. At least 25% of these tests and their results were forged, according to First Post, an Indian news organization. Supposedly, the agency or agencies faked results to meet their daily testing quota.
- Coronavirus testing scams remain a persistent problem in India, said The New York Times.
The investigation found that sample collection records included fake names, fictional addresses and nonexistent or wrong phone numbers, said The Times of India.
- An official interviewed by The Times of India said “almost 530 samples were taken from ‘House Number 5’ in Haridwar. Is it possible for a house to have over 500 residents?”
- The report found that one phone number was used to register almost 50 people.
- Testing records showed that one single-use antigen test kit had tested 700 samples, per The Times of India.
- The investigation found that 50% of sample collectors — more than 200 people— lived in another state despite needing to be present to collect samples.
The Uttarakhand state government is investigating further and will submit a report within two weeks, said The Times of India. The responsible parties and the possibility of criminal charges remain unknown, said First Post.
- Until the matter is settled, the state government has stopped all payments to private agencies and labs, said The Times of India.