Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh
The following letter was penned by E.A.S. Sarma and is addressed to India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. It is being published here in full with Sarma’s permission and with light edits for style.
Dear Smt Sitharaman
We are passing through a debilitating second wave of COVID-19, with new mutants evolving rapidly and the country facing a severe shortage of healthcare infrastructure facilities, acute shortage of vaccines, even cremation facilities for the deceased, across the country. Many of us senior citizens are waiting for a second dose of the vaccine and we are being driven from pillar to post, as most vaccination centres have no stock of the vaccines as on date. The vaccine has not reached many frontline workers even today.
We are fortunate that, as a result of decades of emphasis placed by the successive governments on R&D and indigenous capabilities of producing vaccines against different diseases, we are in a position to supply India-made vaccines to shield the population against the scourge of COVID-19. Had the government balanced the supply of and the demand for vaccines in a more prudent manner, by maximising the use of the Indian vaccines within the country and prioritising its use to vaccinate the most vulnerable at the earliest, we would not have witnessed the kind of vaccine drought we are experiencing today. I sincerely hope that the recent initiatives announced by the prime minister, though quite belated, will restore confidence among the people.
Having gone through the first wave of COVID-19 last year, one would have thought that your Ministry, in consultation with the Ministries of Health and the Departments of Science & Technology and Biotechnology, would strengthen the facilities of R&D in crucial fields such as gene sequencing with special reference to the novel coronavirus so that Indian scientists, who are on par with the best in the world, may keep abreast of the rapidly evolving viral mutants and help the vaccine industry to fine tune the efficacy of the vaccines to counter COVID-19 effectively. However, I feel disturbed that it was not to be so, as evident from an Indian Express investigation report.
For your ready reference, I have extracted below the frustration expressed by some scientists in the report on how adequate funds had not been allocated for gene sequencing effort of the Department of Biotechnology and how even premier institutions like the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad and the the Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology (IGIB) in Delhi have been struggling with limited resources to conduct genome sequencing work.
“The genome sequencing exercise, already running at a snail’s pace, slowed down further between November and January due to lack of funds, absence of clear directives, and, possibly, also disinterest because of the steadily falling COVID-19 curve.
The early availability of gene sequences from China, United States and some other countries is one key reason why a vaccine could be developed in such a record time.
In India, however, genome sequencing crawled – in the first six months, India had barely done a few hundred sequences, when countries like China, the UK and US, had done several thousand and submitted these in public global depositories for scientists across the world to study.
It was only in January this year that the government set up the Indian SARS-CoV2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) to expedite the gene sequencing effort from India through a network of 10 laboratories.
The whole point of gene sequencing is to remain ahead of the curve, anticipate what new variants of the virus are likely to emerge, how they are likely to behave, and what can be done to contain their spread in the population. More the sequences, greater is our information about them, and more effective our response can be. Unfortunately, India has been well behind the curve on this front. We have been reacting to the developments, instead of anticipating them.
INSACOG was initially allocated Rs 115 crore for a six-month period. The money was to come from the Central government. However, no additional allocation was made and the Department of Biotechnology was asked to find the money from its own resources. The first tranche of money could be released only on March 31, the last day of the financial year. The allocation itself has been reduced to about Rs 80 crore because that’s what the DBT could come up with. In the meanwhile, laboratories like the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, and the Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology (IGIB) in Delhi, have been sequencing the genome using their limited funds.
Labs have very limited resources. To find money to do something extra is a very difficult proposition. Most labs diverted money from other running projects to work on sequencing, in the hope that they would be compensated sometime later. But funds were just one problem. There has also been lack of clear directives and goals…
The case of the double mutant variant is a very good example of how policy stumbled. It was detected way back [in October]. It was found again in November and December. By February, this variant is exploding, almost coinciding with the surge in Maharashtra. The discovery should have been acted upon immediately. But nothing happened. Now we are fire-fighting…
As you can notice, West Bengal seems to be becoming the hotspot for such mutations. The new triple mutant could make the virus even more capable of evading human immune response. We need to do a lot more sequencing of a lot many samples.
Such messages coming from the scientific community need to be taken seriously, not as undue criticism, because policies and strategies can be reoriented to yield the most optimum long-term outcomes only by respecting such feedback.
When COVID-19 started playing havoc, scientific laboratories across the globe became active collecting the virus samples, analysing them and publishing their findings. Such R&D work conducted with utmost speed and thoroughness has resulted in companies like Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute being able to start manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccines. However, unless the Indian scientific community is fully enabled and empowered to analyse the samples relevant to Indian conditions, we will not be able to keep abreast of the galloping spread of COVID-19 and overcome it. From what has been reported, though we have world-class laboratories, as a society we seem to have stumbled in extending adequate support to them.
The funds needed are not astronomical. A small fraction of the PM CARES fund, had it been allocated in time to some of these labs, would have enabled the scientists to strengthen their facilities, analyse the India-specific genes in detail, sequence them and bring the findings to the notice of the scientific community, so that the units manufacturing the vaccines may be in a position to fine tune the vaccines to counter the new mutants from time to time. It is a continuing effort in virology and the Indian scientific community, which can compete with the best in the world, should have unstinted support from the government in terms of funding and other facilities. We seem to be more inclined to self-congratulate than to introspect and strategise. As a result, we have failed to anticipate the second wave of COVID-19 and are caught unawares.
I feel anguished that we Indians do not hesitate to spend thousands of crores of rupees on election rallies, statues, a huge concrete building at Central Vista, massive religious congregations, etc., but are not fully inclined to invest funds where they ought to be invested for the long-term welfare of the people. I strongly urge upon the prime minister and the finance ministry to set the priorities right as this is a time when the nation should be clear about what it wishes to achieve and replace knee-jerk reactions with strategic planning.
I hope that the fact that West Bengal is becoming a hotspot for new viral mutants has come to the notice of the prime minister. I am sure that he would have hesitated to hold the kind of huge public rallies he is holding in that state, had he been apprised of the implications!
Former Secretary to the Government of India