AN OPEN APPEAL TO THE HON’BLE PRIME MINISTER
India is one of the worst affected countries during the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. The total number of reported cases of coronavirus infection in India is about 18.5 million and over 200,000 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded as of April 29, 2021. The current situation demands rapid and systematic data collection, reporting and release, so that data-driven mitigation measures can be implemented.
Scientists in India have been contributing to the control of the pandemic since its onset by helping to start thousands of diagnostic testing centres across our country, overseen by scientists themselves and run by their students. Many scientists and engineers have been involved in developing new ventilators and testing methods, in the indigenisation and scaling up of testing kits, in re-purposing drugs and in conducting serosurveys. Others have helped in creating projection models, educating the public, encouraging vaccinations and preventing the dissemination of fake news.
While new pandemics can have unpredictable features, our inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community. It is essential now, more than ever before, that dynamic public health plans be implemented on the basis of scientific data to arrest the spread of infections and save the lives of our citizens. We emphasize the need for systematic collection and timely release of data on:
(a) large-scale genomic surveillance for new variants,
(b) testing and clinical data for better predictions of the spread of infection,
(c) the clinical outcomes of hospitalized patients, and
(d) immune response to vaccination in our population.
While partial funding and permission for systematic surveillance for new variants came only recently, we await Government of India’s approval of our requests for systematic data collection and timely data release.
In this context, Hon’ble Prime Minister, we request the following:
1. Wide access to the granular testing data that ICMR has been collating since the beginning of the pandemic. The ICMR database is inaccessible to anyone outside of the government and perhaps also to many within the government. Most scientists – including several identified by DST and NITI Aayog to develop new prediction models for India – do not have access to these data.
Public health measures in India should necessarily vary from one local area to another, because there is a great geographical variability in patterns of spread of the infection due to local conditions. This necessitates detailed analysis of large-scale granular epidemiological data available with ICMR.
2. Access to clinical data (with appropriate safeguards for maintaining patient privacy), which is required for analysis and predictions, and for estimation of the requirements for oxygen, medical supplies, ventilators, ICU beds, etc. Many scientists have been trying to get data on comorbidities and blood analysis of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, without success.
3. Adequately fund and widen the network of organizations to collect large-scale surveillance data based on genome-sequencing of the coronavirus, and release these data rapidly in the public domain. Without such data-collection and timely release, we will not be able to efficiently manage COVID-19.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), established for genomic surveillance, is only sequencing the coronavirus from about 1% of infected individuals. Increase of sequencing volume and simultaneous collection of clinical data from the infected individuals are crucial to understanding whether a mutated virus is more virulent. These data should be released in real time to the scientific community for analysis and inference.
4. Expand the network of organizations to collect population-level data on immune response to the infection and vaccination. Adequate funding to develop better predictors of spread of the pandemic in the coming months.
5. The “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” policy has made importing of scientific equipment and reagents an extremely tedious and time-consuming process, requiring approval at the level of the Secretaries of Ministries or Departments. This has reduced our ability to scale up testing by developing new testing platforms and has impaired our ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance rapidly and accurately. Adequate encouragement and support by the Government are required for our country to become Aatmanirbhar in the future. Such restrictions, at this time, only serve to impede our ability to deal with COVID-19. We request the withdrawal of these restrictions.
We are a group of scientists affiliated to a large number of research and teaching institutions throughout the country.
We appeal to the Prime Minister to kindly consider the issues that we have raised and take appropriate action to help our citizens and move the nation forward.