India’s top virologist quits key panel on genome sequencing after criticising Modi government

Likened to US’s Dr Anthony Fauci, Dr Shahid Jameel has been an outspoken champion of science-driven policy-making since the start of the pandemic

Shweta Sharma@Ss22Shweta
Monday 17 May 2021 13:20
<p>Shahid Jameel, India’s top virologist, quits key Covid panel after differences with government </p>

Shahid Jameel, India’s top virologist, quits key Covid panel after differences with government

India’s top virologist Dr Shahid Jameel has resigned as the chair of a key panel spearheading genome sequencing for Covid-19 samples, after he repeatedly criticised the government’s response to the virus outbreak.

Dr Jameel, who is highly respected in the scientific community, has been outspoken throughout the pandemic and recently penned an opinion piece in the New York Times which assessed the Modi government’s response to multiple waves of Covid, concluding that the country’s “scientists were facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policy-making”.

Dr Jameel confirmed he was stepping down from the Indian SARS-COV-2 Genomics Consortia (INSACOG), which has been tasked with ramping up efforts to track new and emerging variants of Covid across the country. Asked why he resigned, he said he had “nothing more to say”.

The INSACOG consortium was assembled in January constituting some of the nation’s top scientists, after the government had been facing mounting pressure over the failure to conduct widespread genome sequencing as a deadly second wave crippled the healthcare system in India and the country reported more than 300,000 cases daily for weeks on end.

Previously speaking to The Independent, Dr Jameel had said he and other experts were held back by the authorities’ failure to provide adequate samples of the virus for study. “These are not thought experiments. You have to have the virus before you can do these experiments. We have the sequence but the virus has not been grown in culture as it takes time to grow a virus.”

He also criticised Narendra Modi government for holding huge election rallies amid pandemic and prematurely victory over the pandemic in January.

And in his sharply worded 30 April opinion piece, Dr Jameel again highlighted the lack of data made available by the Modi government for the conduct of studies, saying about 800 Indian scientists had appealed to him demanding access.

“Decision-making based on data is yet another casualty, as the pandemic in India has spun out of control. The human cost we are enduring will leave a permanent scar,” he wrote.

Professor Gautam Menon, an expert who has been closely following India’s response to its devastating second wave of Covid, told The Independent it was unfortunate that a figure like Dr Jameel was leaving INSACOG.

He said it was necessary that inputs from “independent, credible and competent sources” reach the Indian government and Dr Jameel was “undoubtedly one”. “I hope the government will continue to take his advice and to listen carefully to what he tells them,” said Prof Menon, from the Departments of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University, Delhi.

Earlier, Indian newspaper The Hindu cited an unnamed member of INSACOG as saying “government pressure” led Dr Jameel to step down. Prof Menon said he doubted this, suggesting it was unlikely Dr Jameel would resign due to “pressure from any external source”.

Professor K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told The Independent: “I have high respect for [Dr] Jameel and he must have taken the decision on strong grounds.”

He reiterated Dr Jameel’s complaints about the way India had approached the vital task of genome sequencing during the pandemic. “The labs which were collecting samples were not sending the samples early enough to the labs which were doing sequencing, and naturally the testing get delayed,” he said.

“Secondly, genome testing started relatively late in India and the consortium was only activated in January.” At the time INSACOG was set up, India was sequencing a negligible fraction of its positive Covid samples, and this only rose to 7,600 samples in the three months after January 2021 – the equivalent of less than 1 per cent.

While the cause of Dr Jameel’s resignation remains unclear, the opposition Congress politician and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh hit out at the Modi government in a tweet, saying it “has no place for professionals who can speak their mind freely without fear or favour”.

Dr Anant Bhan, a global health researcher based in Madhya Pradesh, said the resignation was unfortunate at a time when the country needs scientific counsel the most.

He noted in a tweet that in two consecutive years, two of India’s most senior scientists have resigned from key bodies.

He said it was in contrast to Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s leading infectious diseases expert, who has “survived Democratic and Republican presidents”.

The development came as India saw a dip in daily Covid infections, dropping below 250,000 for the first time in almost a month. Deaths remain high, however, with Sunday adding another 4,106 to take India’s total death toll to almost 275,000.

Prof Menon suggested the government could now be “cautiously optimistic” that the fall in cases suggests India’s second wave has finally peaked, and that it had done so earlier than recent modelling which predicted the most daily infections to come in mid-May.

But he also warned that India might not be “detecting a large background of cases” as there is no accurate picture of the state of the epidemic in rural India, where testing rates appear to be very low.

“We don’t have a good picture of what is happening in rural India, especially in rural UP and Bihar. Anecdotal evidence and reporting from there suggests a large background of cases that are not being detected and deaths that are escaping being recorded as Covid-19 deaths,” he said.

“It is encouraging that the test positivity is reducing. But until we have a clearer picture from rural regions, it is hard to say whether this spread will continue after numbers in the urban areas, where they are better reported, have dropped,” Prof Menon added.

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