New Delhi: As India faces criticism for allegedly under-reporting the number of deaths due to COVID-19, over 300 scientists from across the country, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take steps to open access to various data in order to transparency in COVID-19 management and also to enable them to work on better models to forecast and study the spread of the disease.
The request was made by top scientists including renowned names like Prof LS Shashidhara (Professor of Biology, IISER Pune and Ashoka University) and Prof Partha Majumder (National Science Chair, Government of India).
According to a letter written to Modi, the signatories said that a major reason for their inability to adequately manage the spread of infection is the lack of systematic collection of epidemiological data and its timely release to the scientific community. “It is essential now, more than ever before, that dynamic public health plans be implemented on the basis of scientific data to arrest the spread of infections and save the lives of our citizens,” the letter added.
Acknowledging that they have received partial funding and permission for implementing systematic surveillance of new variants of Coronavirus, the group of scientists also said that their permission seeking proper data collection and timely release of the same is pending with the Union government.
Requesting permission to access granular testing data that the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has collated over the past months, the signatories also flagged that this data is not accessible to anyone including those within the DST and the NITI Aayog. They stated that this granular data will help them understand the geographical variations in the pattern of the infection spread. The scientists also requested the government to grant access to clinical data, with appropriate safeguards to the patients’ privacy, which will help them in analysis, forecast and to estimate the need for essentials like oxygen, ventilators, ICU beds and the likes.
Pointing out that the Indian SARS-CoV-2 consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) is only sequencing the virus from about 1% of those infected, the signatories requested the Union government to increase the amount of genomic sequencing that is to be done to understand the nature of the mutant strains.
Additionally, they also slammed the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ policy of the Union government for impeding the import of scientific equipment and reagents, alleging that this has caused a dent in the country’s ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance.
“The ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ policy has made importing of scientific equipment and reagents an extremely tedious and time-consuming process, requiring approval at the level of the Secretaries of Ministries or Departments. This has reduced our ability to scale up testing by developing new testing platforms and has impaired our ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance rapidly and accurately. Adequate encouragement and support by the Government are required for our country to become Aatmanirbhar in the future. Such restrictions, at this time, only serve to impede our ability to deal with COVID-19. We request the withdrawal of these restrictions,” they added.