ICMR director-general Balram Bhargava at an event in November 2019. Photo: ICMR/Facebook
- The medical research agency suppressed data that contradicted the government’s rosy predictions, according to researchers that the New York Times spoke with.
- Politics began to influence ICMR’s approach “early last year”, beginning with the government singling out the Tablighi Jamaat congregation for COVID-19’s spread in India.
- Scientists described a “culture of silence” at ICMR, with researchers worried that they would be passed over for opportunities if they questioned their superiors.
New Delhi: The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s top leadership “tailored” the agency’s findings on the spread of COVID-19 and its possible trajectory to suit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda and pressured scientists to downplay the threat posed by the pandemic, New York Times has reported.
The newspaper provides more evidence that ICMR, India’s nodal medical research agency, prioritised the government’s political goals over science and evidence. Just months after the pandemic began, ICMR came under intense criticism for several missteps. In an editorial published in July 2020, The Wire wrote: “Today, no one expects ICMR to contradict the Centre’s COVID-19 response strategy on any count, irrespective of the enormity of a transgression.”
The new report from the New York Times backs this up. Anup Agarwal, a scientist who worked with ICMR before resigning in October 2020, told the newspaper that when he raised concerns about the ‘supermodel’ – a mathematical model to understand how the COVID-19 epidemic might evolve in India – to ICMR director-general Balram Bhargava, Agarwal was reportedly told it was “none of his concern”.
The supermodel, published in October 2020 in the ICMR-run Indian Journal of Medical Research, predicted that the epidemic in India had passed its peak in September 2020 and that the country would be able to control the virus’s spread by the end of February 2021, by following the safety protocols already in place.
Though independent experts subsequently picked the study apart, the ICMR have fast-tracked it to support Modi’s eagerness to reopen the economy and begin the campaign for elections in Bihar, the newspaper suggests.
Top government officials, including Prime Minister Modi himself, mirrored the supermodel’s rosy projections. Modi said in February 2021 that India’s fight against COVID-19 had inspired the rest of the world. But barely two months later, India reported record-high levels of COVID-19 cases amid a devastating second wave that left lakhs dead and many more severely ill.
Political influence began in 2020
The report adds that politics began to influence ICMR’s approach “early last year”, beginning with the government singling out the Tablighi Jamaat congregation for the spread of the novel coronavirus through India. ICMR also contributed to this narrative: a source in the agency reportedly said that the gathering had undone the benefits of the nationwide lockdown.
Raman Gangakhedkar, who was then ICMR’s chief scientist, told New York Times that he had expressed “anguish” over the government’s statements targeting Muslims. However, Bhargava reportedly told him that the matter “should not concern him”.
The report also mentions three instances in which ICMR’s top leadership disentangled the agency from studies that contradicted the government’s optimism and warned of a second wave. For example, a June 2020 study, funded by the ICMR, had concluded that the lockdown had not helped avoid the peak but delayed it. Its authors withdrew the study within days of it being uploaded online. In a tweet, ICMR said the study was not peer-reviewed and that it “does not reflect the official position of ICMR”.
According to New York Times, one of the study’s authors said they had withdrawn the paper amid pressure from the agency’s leaders, “who questioned its findings and complained that it had been published before they had reviewed it”.
Bhargava also directed scientists in late July 2020 to withhold data from the country’s first seroprevalence survey, which showed that infection rates were high in many cities. In a July 25 email that the New York Times said it had reviewed, Bhargava said “I have not got approval” to publish the data. “You are sitting in an ivory tower and not understanding the sensitivity… I am sincerely disappointed.”
This data, if published, would have contradicted the government’s claims that India had fared better than other, richer countries in containing the spread of the virus.
Then, in January 2021, when a study published in the journal Nature predicted a second wave, ICMR’s leadership pressured one of its authors, who worked for the agency, to remove his affiliation from the paper.
Current and former ICMR scientists also told New York Times that they did not speak up against ICMR’s recommendation of ineffective COVID-19 treatments – like plasma therapy and using hydroxychloroquine – because they considered these avenues to be “politically protected”.
Scientists that the newspaper spoke to also described a “culture of silence” at the agency, with researchers worried that they would be passed over for opportunities if they questioned superiors. Agarwal said “good relationship with people” was need to continue working. “You just be non-confrontational about everything.”