HiMedia has taken upon them to supply around 10 lakh Viral Transport Medium (VTM) kits daily, which is essential for testing, to the Indian government. VTM kits collect and transport viruses in an active form to the laboratory. Supplying such a large number of VTM kits is no less challenging, but this top microbiology company look at this as an opportunity to serve the nation. In this one month, the company has shifted its focus towards helping India fight Coronavirus. In a conversation, Dr Vishal G Warke, director, HiMedia tells Jescilia Karayamparambil the 47-year-old company has invested more than time and capital, to achieve these huge targets.
What is the target set for VTMs by the government?
VTM is critical to the country. The Prime Minister’s office through ICMR is in touch with us. They are continuously taking stock of the progress.
We are the principal supplier for VTMs, even though there are other players. These players do not have a large production capacity which our country needs.
The government aims to conduct 5 lakh tests per day which would scale up as days would pass.
Every year, we were making around 5 lakh tests but now, we are making 5 lakh tests per day. In four weeks’ time, we will touch 10 lakh tests per day. I do not think there is a need to go beyond that currently, but we could scale up further if needed.
Would that mean HiMedia will start exporting VTMs?
Yes, only after meeting India’s requirement. Once the government is assured that we can meet the needs of the country, it will allow us to export the VTMs.
HiMedia, a media manufacturing company, which can manufacture 5 tonnes of cell culture powder (which is dissolved to make liquid for VTM) in one eight hour shift. This is enough to meet the requirements of the earth’s population.
We have readied enough powder for 10 crore tests. There is enough powder with us. But that powder has to be turned into liquid form which has to be subsequently dispensed into tubes.
For India, we fill the tubes (with liquid) using robotic liquid systems and the whole VTM kits are supplied. But on humanitarian grounds, we are supplying countries in Africa and the Middle East with liquid in bulk. These countries are not being served. So, we are trying to help them. So, we are supplying them with a medium which they fill in the tube and make the kits at their end. The heart of the whole thing is the medium that will keep the virus alive. If you calculate this liquid bulk that we are supplying then it means we can make liquid for almost 50 lakh tests per day.
What have been the challenges or hurdles that you faced? How did HiMedia overcome that?
As a company, we shy away from talking about our work in the media and that hurt us during the lockdown. Last month, when the lockdown was announced our workforce was beaten up by the police as they didn’t understand our contribution to the country. Our employees were shamed in their area of residence for going to work. However, this situation has improved a lot since the lockdown. I have a newfound respect for the Indian machinery and bureaucracy. The way I have seen our bureaucrats work in central and state governments, it is worth appreciating. Most of the senior bureaucrats are personally attending to issues that are hurting us from carrying out our activities.
Another bottleneck was a shortage of specific tubes. So, we convinced ICMR to allow usage of smaller tubes which allowed us to scale up.
Yet another difficulty was related to swabs. Right now, it is being imported from China, but we hope to start the production of swabs by June. Either we might take help from another company or start production on it individually.
How much has the company invested in the last month to support the fight against Coronavirus?
In the last one month, we have invested around Rs 50 crore to buy swabs, machines and refurbish our existing plans to manufacture medium used in VTMs. While the swabs — nasal and mouth — were imported cost around USD 5 million, the rest capital was spent in other upgrading work. These machines are purchased from companies in China, India and the United States.
While we do not have investors to whom we need to answer this reason for this investment decision, the company directors did ask what will be the use of this investment post Coronavirus. As the company is a family-run business, our decisions are faster. This investment mainly fits with our company ethos to serve the nation at the time of crisis.
When do you expect to break even?
We are spending heavily. However, we have not evaluated the profit and loss of the decisions that we are taking. We have to produce as the country is dependent on us.
As soon as the supply of VTMs becomes smooth, the payment will start to come in. So, we are hopeful the company will be financially sorted and will breakeven. This pandemic is there to stay for quite some time so such an investment was needed.
Are you trying to venture into RT-PCR reagents as well?
Dr Rajas Warke (Director- Molecular Biology and Virology) is handling that area. I wouldn’t be the right person to comment on it.
Looks like HiMedia is looking at being part of various aspects in the testing business. Is it?
We want to be present from A to Z (in cell culture business). The senior officials from ICMR are also looking at us with a hope that we complete the gamut. This is mainly because we can ramp up production once the requisite permission is in place.