The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s apex biomedical research body, is involved in vaccine development and health research, and is spearheading efforts in the fight against the coronavirus and its new virulent strains.
In an interview, Dr Balram Bhargava, director general of ICMR, and secretary of the department of health research under the Union health ministry, spoke about the status of covid-19 research, vaccine development and allocation of funds for research in the wake of India beginning the immunization of its population against covid-19 with two vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, less than a year after the outbreak of coronavirus in the country.
ICMR has been continuously investing in sustained efforts towards covid-19 research in effective solutions and relevant innovation. ICMR has achieved remarkable breakthroughs in providing important information about disease trends, risk factors and treatment outcomes or public health interventions. We are continuously mapping disease spread through sero-surveillance and working to ensure that our testing capacity is enough to meet the demand on disease trends. We have also been working with both the government and the private sector to conduct research on innovative tools and diagnostics to manage covid-19.
What is the status of new vaccines for diseases other than covid-19?
The government of India is committed to providing life-saving vaccines for not only covid-19 but also for any other disease. The finance ministry has said that the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine against the deadly pneumococcal pneumonia will be rolled out across the country in the budget speech. This will be an indigenous vaccine and will help save the lives of thousands of children across the country. ICMR has been involved in the development of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine (JENVAC) and the Kyasanur Forest Disease Vaccine and recently completed a technology transfer for the Shigella vaccine. It has also been involved in trials of vaccines for tuberculosis and leprosy.
Where does India stand in vaccine and drug development?
In the covid-19 context, Covaxin by Bharat Biotech was India’s first indigenous vaccine, which is essential to mention as it is a big feat. It has been developed in collaboration with ICMR and our institute, the National Institute of Virology (NIV).
India is a vaccine powerhouse. It makes 60% of the world’s vaccines and is home to half-a-dozen major manufacturers. India is also sending vaccines to other countries such as Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles.
Finally, there are numerous other vaccine candidates that are in different stages of trials in India. We have set up a portal for all such information: https://vaccine.icmr.org.in/
Is India continuing contact tracing?
A comprehensive contact tracing exercise has been carried out since the first case of covid-19 has been detected in India. The Union ministry of health and family welfare routinely issues guidelines for contact tracing and it is the mandate of the state governments to implement them. Recently, a comprehensive contact tracing exercise was initiated for contacts of those who tested positive for the UK variant of the virus.
India has not been able to match global research quality. What is the government doing to strengthen research infrastructure?
In recent years, India has made significant advances both in terms of research quality and the allocation of funds for this. We have also shared the draft 5th National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy to bolster scientific advancement for public consultation and will soon finalize it.
Specifically, Union budget 2021-22 has given health research a major boost and this will help address the growing demands in research coupled with finding practical solutions to our country’s health problems. It has also fared well in terms of funding towards tackling emerging and re-emerging diseases and is a timely move given that our economy has been affected by the ongoing covid-19 crisis.
What is the status of the setting up of the National Institute of One Health, four National Institutes of Virology, nine Bio-Safety Level 3 Laboratories, and a regional research platform for the World Health Organization (WHO) South East Asia Region?
The recently proposed budget aims to strengthen medical research in numerous ways. In keeping with this, a National Institute of One Health is being set up, which would act as a catalyst to improve the overall status of research and capacity building in One Health in various institutes located in different parts of India.
The One Health Institute will address issues of zoonotic infections and help in a better understanding of its human-animal and environmental relationships.
In addition to this, upgrading viral research and diagnostic laboratories into Bio-Safety Level 3 laboratories will strengthen the national and state health system to support prevention and preparedness to manage covid-19 and other emerging infections.
Lastly, setting up a regional research platform for the World Health Organization South East Asia region would deep root and increase research and scope for relevant collaboration among countries of the region to tackle cross-border infections.
These announcements will boost biosecurity and biosafety for the country. We are currently preparing a roadmap for this roll-out and more details in this context will be shared with the media shortly.
The novel coronavirus is now more than a year old. What is the latest on the research, emergence, source, host, epidemiology and transmission of the virus?
India as a country was vulnerable to covid-19, but the disease virulence depends heavily on covid-appropriate behaviour (CAB) being followed in the state and the way risk communication and community engagement plans are being implemented.
Recently, more shifts have been observed in the mutation of the covid virus.
The National Institute of Virology was one of the first in the globe to isolate the covid virus and has now isolated the UK strain of the virus. It is at present conducting more research on the Brazilian strain, the UK strain and the South African strain.
India has submitted 1,000 gene sequences of the covid-19 virus. In addition to ICMR-NIV, other ICMR institutes are also working to do gene sequencing.