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New Delhi: Scientists have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 across the globe. Not only have they been playing pivotal roles in Covid research, diagnostics, developing vaccines and knowledge creation but have also been active members of various taskforce, panels and networks helping the governments and policymakers to devise strategies to make the world Covid free. In a special series, on this Independence Day, NDTV spoke to one of India’s foremost scientists who has been studying the genetic information of coronavirus, catching mutations and warning about variants. 60-year-old Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director, Tata Institute for Genetics and Society, Bangalore, was a member of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG) that had warned the government before the second wave of new contagious variants of coronavirus becoming dominant in the country and likely to cause a significant spike in cases and deaths. Dr Mishra was formerly the director of the Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research–Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Hyderabad and is also a member of expert advisory panels on Covid for the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Here is his take on India’s fight against the pandemic so far and the way forward.
Role Of Genome Sequencing In the Fight Against Covid
In order to understand any organism, it is important to read the details of its genome which is the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) and this process is called genome sequencing, said Dr Mishra. He added,
Genome is the very basis of life and all living creatures. As the genome changes, organisms change and new things emerge, that’s why we have so much diversity all around. Even two individuals are different. Viruses use their capacity of making changes in the genome in a very effective manner. They change a lot while replicating themselves. It tends to make some errors while replicating and this is called mutations. There are now standard methods using which we can sequence within hours organisms like coronavirus which has about 30,000 basis long genome. Coronavirus is an RNA (Ribonucleic acid) virus so we have to convert the RNA into DNA and then read the bits and pieces of that DNA in small fragrants and put it together and we have the whole genome of the virus. Even if one nucleotide out of 30,000 has changed, we will be able to pick. Genome sequencing is fundamental in containing the pandemic and has assumed an important role in the fight against Covid since the very beginning of the Covid crisis. It is the basis of vaccine strategy and even diagnosis.
He further said that genome sequencing helps in getting vital information about the disease and its spread.
It helps us know how the new variants are impacting the present efforts to control the pandemic, if it is becoming more infectious or can spread faster or can be clinically troublesome or can evade the immune system. Depending upon its changes, a virus acquires new characteristics which is why it is very important to continuously sequence the virus, he added.
On how genome sequencing helped contain the spread of the UK variant in Hyderabad, Dr Mishra said,
You can track the path of the spread of the virus that from where this virus has come through genome sequencing. So, for instance, when the UK variant came to India, we were very strongly monitoring all airports and somebody who had the UK variant were asked to stay at the airport for a certain number of days of quarantine. This is how airports of Hyderabad had done and the UK variant could not spread into the state. But at other airports, we missed this and the variant spread even to the villages in other states. Genome sequencing has been really helpful in building strategies and taking additional steps to contain the infection. Without it, we would really become blind in terms of information and characteristics of the virus.
On genome sequencing in India, Dr Mishra said that the country has been able to generate enough genomic information and has picked up variants over the past year. He said,
I would say that we are not doing too bad. We have been generating enough sequence information that we could pick the variants in time. What we need to work on now is how to process this information, how to share it and use this information so that it is effectively incorporated into our strategies. Any sequence information that is of value today will not remain useful after a few days or weeks. Had China informed about the spread of the virus much earlier when it started, the pandemic today would have been of a different kind. But they informed the rest of the world much later when the situation was already out of hands.
Experience Of Working On The Forefront Of Covid Research
On how being at the forefront of Covid research has changed his life, Dr Mishra, who along with his team was closely observing the coronavirus and its evolution said,
When we are looking at the problem and seeing the evolution of the problem unravelling in front of our eyes, it is life-changing in itself. The key thing was that the rules of the game were changing continuously as the virus was changing, we were learning more and more about the virus, and we had to work out new ways to tackle it. It is like a moving target which we are trying to chase. Whether it is diagnostic or prevention of the spread, or finding new ways of testing, developing new kinds of drugs, the fight against Covid has been really an unprecedented learning curve for us scientists. I must say that these were the fastest, most challenging one and a half years of my life.
While sharing about lessons learnt during the pandemic, he said,
We must not forget the implications of this crisis on the society and thus, each scientist, researcher, policymaker should strive to be ready to handle such situation without letting it get out of hand.
Working With The Government During The Pandemic
Working with the government has both privileges and constraints, said Dr Mishra. He said,
While working with the government, you may get disappointed because you are not getting things done as fast as you would like to because there are many factors and they need to be respected. There are some challenges like convincing the system and agencies about the new methods and new things. They have valid reasons to be careful and so it is important to follow rules and criteria and this sometimes gets frustrating because you feel that it is important to take faster actions. So, on some days, it can be stressful as there can be differences in priorities, thinking and everything may not fall in place in one go, but at the end of the day, there is just one common goal that we are all working on- to get out of this pandemic and that has been keeping us together.
He appreciated how the government has been able to bring multiple institutions and agencies together in this time of need.
Achievements And The Way Forward
Our scientific institutions have really risen to the occasion during the pandemic and every top institution in the county is really seriously involved in Covid research and various other services that are required for handling the Covid situation like testing, surveillance, modelling, trying for the new drugs, repurposing the drugs and lots of other things, said Dr Mishra.
He emphasised that there is a need of strengthening the scientific base in the country and make it future-ready in order to advance in terms of economy and innovation.
Acknowledging the role of young scientists in fighting the current pandemic, Dr Mishra said,
The way they worked hard and exhibited courage and concern for society has been a source of motivation and confidence for others. He asserted that it is the need of the hour that science gets much better support that it needs to meet the present needs and be future-ready by increasing state spending on science, research and education by several folds.
He said that the pandemic has forced the researchers to innovate new things.
Now we are looking at we can effectively help ourselves by innovating new things. Remember that when the pandemic started, each test was costing about Rs. 4,000- Rs. 5,000 and so few were available. Today, the cost of some of the tests are as low as less than Rs. 100 per test. Not only this, there was such a shortage of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) kits at that time and now we have plenty. We also developed methods of air sampling and that was one the very early finding that the virus spreads more through the air than through the touch or contact, he said.
India’s Health Priorities On 74th Independence Day
Dr Mishra said the next wave seems to be certain in the country but the impact of it can be controlled with carefully designed strategies and implementation and behaviour of the people. He said,
There are a lot of things that we expect from the system like there should be environment surveillance, zoonotic surveillance but we also have to contribute as a society. We have to take care of this planet. There is a very fine balance in this whole ecosystem and we must not disturb that. We need to be responsible. For instance, wearing a mask is being civil because you are not just protecting yourself but are also saving others. How fast we can gain freedom from Covid depends on how much we can do to stop the virus from thriving. If we don’t do this, unfortunately, there will be nasty variants that will cause more waves. We must remember that these variants develop within our bodies themselves and not somewhere else and so it is important not to let the virus enter our bodies and thrive and multiply.
On the need of a separate policy in the country for tackling pandemics, he said a separate policy can help the country become technological ready with adequate healthcare infrastructure.
There are parasites all over different animals and they are living in a certain equilibrium. When parasites or infectious agents come to new hosts like humans, we are not prepared and if in some ways the parasite get used to spreading in us, then we get a new disease and if it is spreading fast then it can take the scale of a pandemic. So, we have to keep monitoring and surveying environmental samples and not disturb the environment, don’t catch or go in proximity with the animals which are part of the wildlife and we should restrict human economic activities within our domain and not let it spread beyond. So, those are things that need to be followed and, in some parts, it needs to be implemented more rigorously. So that is how we should have a policy separately for tackling pandemics in which environmental surveillance, technology readiness and self-sufficiency are the key ingredients.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.