In a surprising move, the Ministry of Home Affairs has suspended Manipal University’s FCRA license, effectively stopping the institute from availing or using foreign funds, citing “unauthorised” research undertaken by the Manipal Institute of Virology, according to Hindustan Times.
FCRA stands for the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act of 2010, which regulates the use of funds transferred across the border.
The accusation pertains to the Manipal Centre for Virus Research’s (MCVR’s) actions during the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018. The Indian Council of Medical Research and the Union health ministry had accused the lab of storing and studying Nipah samples in a lab that didn’t have the necessary safeguards to contain the virus, and going so far as to suggest the lab’s access to foreign funds had potentiated it to develop bioweapons.
However, MCVR has strongly denied these allegations, explaining that the ministry had explicitly approved the lab to handle Nipah samples as well as that the lab had inactivated the virus, thus nixing its ability to infect, before studying it.
An unnamed ministry official reportedly said the license had been cancelled in January 2020 and the university had been informed. Prior to this incident, the government had also terminated the Acute Febrile Illness Project, which the MCVR and the US Centres for Disease Control had been working on together to study numerous infectious diseases with no known treatment, including the Nipah and Ebola viruses, citing the same reasons.
Additionally, Arunkumar Govindakarnavar, the director of the MCVR, told Hindustan Times, “The university has not used any foreign contribution for Nipah testing. In addition, the university has filed reports on the use of foreign funding every 15 days. All account details have been provided.”
So in both cases, the two ministries – of health and home affairs – appear to have acted based on a single episode whereas MCVR has said the government has always been in the loop. The Wire itself was able to verify that the health ministry had been receiving regular updates about MCVR’s activities vis-à-vis the Nipah virus. As Priyanka Pulla wrote,
From publicly available documents, it is clear that both ICMR and India’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), an institute under the Union health ministry, were aware of MCVR’s Nipah testing capabilities and the minutiae of the fever project. A 2018 paper published in the journal BMJ Global Health and coauthored, among others, by Balram Bhargava, director general (DG) of ICMR; Sujeet Singh, director of NCDC; Promila Gupta, principal consultant at the Directorate General of Health Services (a health ministry body); and Govindakarnavar stated that the Manipal centre’s ability to test the Nipah virus helped Kerala respond quickly to the unprecedented 2018 outbreak.
The government’s decision to suspend Manipal University’s FCRA license is doubly surprising because educational and research institutions are rarely subject to such punishment, especially on the back of singular events.