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US prepares to deploy CDC's 'disease detectives' in India with the objective of choking the virus spread

Acclaimed for cutting short the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and South America's Zika Virus epidemic, key specialists from the US government are set to reach India soon. They will sort through COVID-19 data; review the country’s existing models for the spread of infections and aim to identify where and how the virus may spread next

April 28, 2021 / 02:08 PM IST

Uncle Sam to the rescue. Officials from specialized verticals of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), a programme of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC), are to reach India soon.

The government is looking forward to the arrival of these specialists, who may just constitute the biggest US assistance to India at a time when the coronavirus epidemic is ravaging the country.

The CDC is the US national public health agency and its EIS programme is considered to be one of the pivots of the country's disease control and public health management systems.

US EIS officials will closely work with their Indian counterpart, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and its own Epidemic Intelligence Service officers.

"The main objective of the government is to slash the rate of new infections. For that to happen, we need to understand where and how infections are spreading, and why they aren't spreading elsewhere. Till now, the NCDC and other central health agencies have collated massive amounts of data from across the country. We are using that data to choke the spread of the virus and the US CDC team, with a good track record in that area, will be very useful," a senior health official said.

The US EIS officials will be crucial in sorting through that data, reviewing India's existing models for the spread of the pandemic infection and sharing their knowhow and best practices, he added.

As of April 28, India has witnessed more than 3 lakh daily cases of the coronavirus for seven days in a row.

Often referred to as 'boots-on-the-ground disease detectives', EIS officials investigate public health problems domestically and globally, according to the CDC Foundation. Historically christened “shoe leather epidemiology,” the emphasis on fieldwork keeps these epidemiologists constantly on foot, wearing out their shoes and going door-to-door in an effort to track and control disease outbreaks, the Foundation says.

The US government and its partner nations have acknowledged that this method was instrumental in containing and controlling public health disasters like the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the Zika virus outbreak in South America and cyclone catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina.

Apart from working out of a control room in New Delhi, the foreign team is also expected to visit COVID-19 hotspots and sift through demographic, weather and environmental data to deduce how the virus is spreading.

According to media reports from Washington DC, senior Biden administration officials have said the team will work hand in hand with Indian experts in areas including laboratory services, surveillance and epidemiology, and bioinformatics for sequencing and modelling of the disease, infection prevention and control the rollout and risk communications.

Long term fight

Beyond the short term goal of controlling the runaway infection rates, a few professionals from the CDC may also stay on in the country in the mid to long term, sources said. Being attached with the Indian regulator, they will liaison between both governments to control the impact of disease spread and provide a better link for bilateral cooperation on the issue.

The CDC currently funds such positions across the world. According to media reports, the previous Donald Trump administration's decision to remove an appointee from such a public health position in China may have led to the US losing the ability to learn of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in Wuhan.

After a dramatic week of diplomatic discussions, the White House on April 25 announced that it will assist India by sending medical equipment such as oxygen concentrators and ventilators, supplies such as rapid testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPEs) and key drugs to battle Covid-19.

However, the US is yet to decide on whether and how to distribute its massive and continuously growing stockpile of 40-50 million doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine. White House officials have said they will take a call only after the US CDC approves the vaccine for use in the US.
Subhayan Chakraborty