SpiceHealth and the Airports Authority of India are putting the onus on each other for the 'contamination' of COVID-19 testing machines at the Amritsar airport that led to approximately 64 percent of the passengers on two international flights falsely testing positive on arrival in January.
SpiceHealth, which was then operating in the airport's arrival area, had on January 6 and January 7 tested 469 passengers who arrived on two charter flights from Italian capital Rome and found 298 of them to be COVID-19-positive.
This led to turmoil at the airport as passengers started protesting against the test results.
SpiceHealth, which is owned by SpiceJet's promoters Avani Singh and Ajay Singh, told PTI that it conducted an investigation in the matter with the testing machine manufacturer 'Thermofisher Accula' and found that the testing machines got contaminated as they were kept in an open space in the arrival section of the Amritsar airport.
SpiceHealth then informed AAI about these findings and "advised that the docks (machines) be protected and test performed in a covered space and not directly exposed to conditions favouring contamination", it said.
However, the Centre-run AAI, which owns and runs the Amritsar airport, told PTI that it does not agree with SpiceHealth's assessment on this matter.
The AAI said the site for setting up of registration counters, sampling and testing facility was chosen by SpiceHealth, and the arrangements for the set-up of machines were made by the company only.
"The issue of space and environment was not raised by SpiceHealth after January 6 (first day of the incident) and January 7 (second day of the incident)", the AAI noted.
The issue regarding the space provided and the adjoining environment was raised by SpiceHealth for the first time on January 12, and in its report, it was recommended that the internal environment of the airport should not be exposed to ‘at risk' passengers, the AAI stated.
The authority added that it is yet to receive the official report of the aforementioned joint investigation.
After winning the bid for the facility, SpiceJet had started testing flyers in the arrival area of the Amritsar airport from December 27. After the January 6-7 incident, the AAI cancelled its contract on January 20.
PTI accessed various AAI documents related to this matter that revealed fresh details about the chain of events.
At 11.20 AM on January 6, a charter flight from Rome landed at the Amritsar airport with a total of 179 passengers.
Since Italy was then considered an 'at-risk' country, 160 passengers - who were above five years of age - underwent Rapid RT-PCR testing on arrival in line with the Union health ministry's regulations and 125 tested positive.
The high number of COVID-19 positive test results "created nuisance" between these passengers and staff of airlines, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), AAI and Punjab government authorities, the AAI's documents noted.
This led to a "squabble situation" and "turmoil" at the Amritsar airport, the documents added.
When the AAI on January 6 asked SpiceHealth about "such a sudden rise" in COVID-19 positive test results, the company "verbally informed that the test results were accurate", the documents noted.
However, the company's claims about accuracy were put on test the next day itself.
At 12.12 PM on January 7, another charter flight arrived from Rome to Amritsar with 290 passengers. A total of 285 passengers (above five years of age) were tested and 173 were found positive.
Thirty-seven passengers tested negative, while "no result was declared by SpiceHealth" for 75 passengers, the documents noted.
Due to "continuous high positivity rates" on two subsequent days, the AAI called for an immediate meeting in the office of Amritsar Airport Director V K Seth at 5 pm on January 7.
Three SpiceHealth officials -- vice president and head of operations and quality Partha Roy, principal advisor Ravi Gaur, assistant vice president and business head Radha Arora -- were present at this meeting.
"In this meeting, it was decided to put on hold the services of SpiceHealth...as it was admitted by Partha Roy...that the present machines cannot be used for testing purposes," an AAI document noted.
The AAI then requested Punjab government authorities to manage the testing services, but they replied that it would take them "around 8-10 hours to provide the test results for one flight".
Therefore, considering the immediate requirement of the next international flight, city-based Dr. Bhasin Path Labs was asked to start testing services at the airport.
Thirteen days later, on January 20, the AAI cancelled the contract with SpiceHealth to test passengers arriving from 'at risk" countries at the Amritsar airport.
In this January 20 letter, the AAI said the licence was awarded to SpiceHealth for Accula Rapid PCR testing for international passengers arriving at the Amritsar airport from countries deemed "at-risk".
"However, you have stated about contamination of Accula machines installed in the arrival area and shortage of Accula testing kits due to non-supply for the same from the manufacturer itself," it added.
"Therefore, you are hereby given five days' notice to handover the vacant possession to the AAI," it noted.
When asked about the January 6-7 incident, SpiceHealth told PTI that it conducted a detailed technical investigation and decontamination and stopped testing at the arrival terminal of the Amritsar airport from January 8 to 10.
Testing was resumed in the arrival area from January 11, it said.
"However, there was a sudden shortage of Accula testing kits due to rising cases in the US and the manufacturer was unable to provide kits," it noted.
The contract specifically mentioned the use of only Thermofisher Accula and one more machine, it said.
"SpiceHealth, which uses the former, had to hence stop testing at the arrival terminal," it mentioned.
SpiceHealth and Thermofisher Accula conducted a joint investigation and an on-ground assessment and checked the entire lot of instruments and processes, it said.
"The investigation concluded that the contamination of the docks located in the arrival area had occurred due to aerosol contamination," it noted.
"As the setup of these machines was done in open space under the low roof AC structure of airport arrival terminal, exposure of these docks to a high viral load of likely Covid–Omicron variant lead to aerosol contamination," it stated.
In view of the high level of contamination, SpiceHealth informed Amritsar Airport authorities and advised that the docks (machines) should be protected and tests performed in a covered space, not directly exposed to the conditions favouring contamination, it stated.
SpiceHealth is currently providing COVID-19 testing services at the Varanasi airport.