A group of scientific institutions and genomic laboratories had stopped publishing its weekly COVID-19 report for three months after India’s health ministry said it wanted to vet them first, top government officials told Moneycontrol.
Experts said such interference and lack of transparency would hurt the country’s efforts to strengthen genomic surveillance and build capacity for the future. Government sources, on the other hand, said that the health ministry wanted to avoid creating unnecessary panic among the public.
An edition of the Covid-19 genomic surveillance bulletin was published by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) in early January. After that, a bulletin dated April 11 was released late on April 27 evening after Moneycontrol sent an email to the health ministry seeking its response on the stalling of reports.
The trigger for the ministry’s interference was the revelation by INSACOG in its report for the week ended January 10 that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was in community transmission in India, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The ministry was also unhappy with a bulletin published for the week ending November 29 which recommended COVID-19 vaccine booster doses for all above 40 years in the wake of threat from Omicron, said sources. But the government was not in agreement with this at the time.
INSACOG was set by the Union government for genomic and epidemiological surveillance of Covid-19 and comprises various scientific institutions and genomic laboratories. It is facilitated by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) involving the Central Surveillance Unit under the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme.
The consortium was constituted in December 2020 in the wake of the threat to public health by the Alpha variant of the virus, which was first detected in the UK. It started publishing the weekly bulletins six months later, from June 18, as the second wave of infections in India started receding.
Its report in January first confirmed the free circulation of Omicron in communities. This virus variant triggered the third major pandemic wave in India early this year, but unlike the devastating Delta wave of last summer, most patients with Omicron infections reported only mild or no symptoms.
Mails sent to the NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh and the health secretary Rajesh Bhushan seeking their comments on the issue remained unanswered. This story will be updated when their responses are received.
But incidentally after the email, a bulletin for the week ending April 11, before the uptick in COVID-19 numbers began in some parts of India, was put out which said that “based on genome sequencing analysis, very few recombinant variants have been discovered in India.”
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So far, none showed either increased transmission (locally or otherwise) or associated with severe disease or hospitalization, the latest bulletin also said.
Official sources in the ministry meanwhile explained that the government wanted to filter certain information in order to “avoid unnecessary panic in the public.”
Apart from detailing the number of samples that underwent whole genome sequencing from across the country, the weekly reports have been including information on new variants identified and their possible implications on the pandemic’s trajectory.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) in New Delhi, arguably India’s finest genome sequencing laboratory, had been preparing the bulletin.
However, following the January 10 report, the health ministry decided to check and vet every report before it could be put out in the public domain.
A text message sent to then IGIB director Dr Anurag Agarwal, who now teaches at Ashoka University, has remained unanswered so far.
“Omicron is now in community transmission in India and has become dominant in multiple metros, where new cases have been rising exponentially,” INSACOG had said in its report No. 29 for the week ending January 10.
The health ministry has never officially said that there has been community transmission of any of the Covid-19 virus variants in India.
“Vaccination of all remaining unvaccinated at-risk people and consideration of a booster dose for those 40 years of age and over, first targeting the most high-risk / high-exposure may be considered, since low levels of neutralising antibodies from current vaccines are unlikely to be sufficient to neutralise Omicron, although risk of severe disease is still likely to be reduced,” the INSACOG bulletin dated November 29 had said.
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However, following instructions by the ministry, the next INSACOG bulletin dated December 4 clarified its stance, said the sources cited earlier.
It said that while in view of the emerging evidence from South Africa and some other countries about Omicron’s substantial ability to evade immunity from previous infection, there was a discussion about the potential role of additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccines in high risk populations in the previous INSACOG bulletin but that, “this was not a recommendation or suggestion for booster dose in the national immunization program".
When INSACOG was set up, the government said one of its objectives was “to monitor the genomic variations in SARS-CoV-2 for genomic, epidemiological and clinical correlation to assist public health response to the pandemic.”
'Not in public interest'
Senior virologist Dr T Jacob John, who is professor emeritus at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, said that stalling the publishing of a crucial scientific report due to political interference “does not sound right.”
“As of now, when there is an uptick in cases, people ought to know if there are new variants or sub-variants that may be leading to more cases and whether there can be a fourth wave. Even if there are none, people have a right to know because this information is about public health,” he said.
Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel, a fellow at the Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and a visiting professor at Ashoka University, underlined that transparency breeds trust.
“INSACOG reports have not been updated and that’s not how it should be,” said Jameel, who stepped down as the chair of the scientific advisory committee to INSACOG last year.
Jameel pointed out that the consortium was set up as a truly collaborative mechanism, where labs could learn from each other and enable a data-driven public health response.
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“Perhaps even more and better work is happening now, but if that’s behind a wall, it doesn’t help as much. Covid-19 offered us an opportunity to strengthen genomic surveillance and build capacity for the future,” he said. “We should continue to do that because surveillance will keep us prepared. We don’t know what will hit next and when.”
Sources in INSACOG said that while CSIR-IGIB carries out whole genome sequencing of samples from COVID-19 patients from Maharashtra and other SAARC countries as part of other independent projects, it no longer gets samples from Delhi.
Samples from Delhi are sequenced at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, which was included in the consortium later.
It was after a long gap that the IGIB received samples from Delhi last weekend for sequencing.