The Sciences

India's COVID-19 Response Suggests ‘Scientific Superpower’ Status an Impossible Dream

To get to the hearts of many stories about the COVID-19 epidemic, journalists have had to wade through a swamp of lies and deceit.

The novel coronavirus showed, pretty quickly, that even though it spreads through people and even though people are often constrained by borders, it would not be. China’s COVID-19 epidemic quickly became the world’s COVID-19 pandemic.

In much the same way, there may not be much sense in talking about the pandemic as an event confined to an arbitrarily defined unit of time, in this case 2020. The name of the virus’s disease attests to this view: COVID-19 was discovered in 2019, but it wreaked most of its havoc in 2020, and will continue for months to come.

However, while the virus effortlessly transcends space and time, it may be useful to divvy up its effects into pieces of space and pieces of time. This way, we give ourselves an opportunity to compare the effects across these pieces and pick up on anomalies. Because to be sure, India was an anomaly in so many ways.

For example, the first thought in my head when I heard that a participant of the Serum Institute’s trial of the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine candidate had sued the company for Rs 5 crore was, “Why can’t just one thing go as planned in India? Why does everything have to get messed up?”

Journalists have been on their toes, at the edge of their seats and in various other awkward positions throughout India’s COVID-19 epidemic – and more often than not because they have been brought there by inept governance. It was very heartening through the last ten months to witness many reporters and editors rise to the unfortunate occasion, intelligently covering a panoply of stories that located scientific ideas and decisions in their right social and political contexts in the face of acrimonious resistance from the ruling party and its foot-soldiers.

In the face of their work, the government’s attempts to wield the epidemic as an excuse for its failures quickly came unstuck. However, many of these stories ought not to have been needed in the first place – in that they were the result of actions and policies that are easily fixed, but weren’t, often because government officials had lied. The Serum Institute case is one of the latest examples of such a fiasco, especially now that other trial participants are contemplating legal action against the company as well as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for not being told of a severe adverse event that may have been related to the vaccine.

Men ride on a motorbike past a supply truck of India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest maker of vaccines, in Pune, May 2020. Photo: Reuters/Euan Rocha

Other examples include the shutting down of the Manipal Institute of Virology, the initial seroprevalence survey results, the validation of antibody testing kits, details regarding drug and vaccine clinical trials, ignoring epidemiologists’ advice, decisions about lockdowns and containment, various notices issued by the AYUSH ministry, confusion over ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones, ridiculous statements at press conferences including a crude attempt at communalising the pandemic, and, unforgettably, the approval of hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, favipiravir, itolizumab and tocilizumab without sufficient evidence of their efficacy.

To get to the hearts of these stories, journalists have had to wade through a swamp of lies and deceit. The Wire wrote in its July 1 editorial: “Today, no one expects ICMR to contradict the Centre’s COVID-19 response strategy on any count, irrespective of the enormity of a transgression.”

The council has since been joined by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI). On December 4, the incumbent DCGI, Dr V.G. Somani, spoke about India’s drug approval and quality rules during a webinar. He meticulously went through various provisions of the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules 2019 vis-à-vis vaccine trials. It may have been evident to all viewers that Dr Somani had been drawn out by the Serum Institute fracas, but at the end of his talk, he refused to answer any questions about the incident and the government’s position on it.

He was followed by Dr Sheela Godbole of ICMR, who spoke about the connections between clinical-trial design and drug safety. Was she aware that only two days prior, Biocon Ltd.’s researchers had uploaded the preprint paper corresponding to their controversial itolizumab trial earlier in 2020? And that the paper clearly shows how the trial design didn’t at all support the conclusion – made by many company members, including MD Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, on primetime TV debates – that itolizumab was efficacious?

In the words of Dr Jammi Nagaraj Rao, “The 41-page preprint paper leaves us precisely where we were back in July with respect to the evidence – or lack of it – for itolizumab’s efficacy”. Like a loop in the news cycle opened out of thin air, and now being closed as if it didn’t matter.

Pushing Ayurveda – a case in point

It’s baffling as to how a country can be – or even aspire to be – a ‘scientific superpower’ if its political leadership grossly and perhaps deliberately misunderstands what ‘science’ is. Nothing bears this out more than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s intention to roll out a form of medicine that the Indian Medical Association calls ‘mixopathy’ – a mix of Ayurvedic and allopathic ideas, techniques and methods.

The party’s intention here is for Ayurveda – or their idea of Ayurveda – to piggyback on science’s legitimacy into mainstream medical practice. But what it really is is a Frankenstein’s monster, an inexplicable thing sown together and brought to life by right-wing propaganda.

Also Read: For Sick Indians, Modi Government’s Ayurvedic ‘Surgery’ Order is the Unkindest Cut

Ayurveda suffering due to the BJP’s reverse-Midas touch is not unique. Many other things this party’s governments have touched during the COVID-19 epidemic have turned into a mess. A prominent case is that of Bharat Biotech, the Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company making a COVID-19 vaccine candidate called Covaxin, with ICMR’s help.

In late July, ICMR chief Dr Balram Bhargava announced shortly before the commencement of Covaxin’s phase 3 clinical trials that the trials will have to wrap up by Independence Day – or face the government’s music. ICMR later withdrew the statement, closing the loop on another unnecessary news cycle – although it opened up a few times more, as recently as last week.

ICMR director general Balram Bhargava. Photo: Screenshot/DD News

Haryana home minister Anil Vij announced on Thursday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, two weeks after he had received either a shot of the Covaxin candidate or a placebo candidate, as part of its clinical trials. However, after Vij’s tweet, the Union health ministry shared a strange note with reporters: “The antibodies against the infection build up only after a specific number of days pass after the second dose is taken. Since this is a two-dose vaccine. (sic) [The] minister in question has taken only one dose of the vaccine.”

G.S. Mudur subsequently wrote in The Telegraph, “A Haryana minister’s tweet two weeks ago and a Union health ministry message on Saturday identifying him as a recipient of a candidate Covid-19 vaccine has puzzled experts who described them as possibly irresponsible statements or breaches in clinical trial protocols.”

The current Government of India is clearly determined to constantly be right and constantly on higher ground, nothing less. To realise these conditions, it lies, evades, deceives and hides when a time comes for it to say it was wrong. When there is a mistake, or even when something entirely out of its control happens, it tries to lie the problem away, either to give the impression that the problem didn’t exist in the first place or that it has found a solution against all odds. And the government has always been found out. A rare occasion when it actually apologised was when it acknowledged that it had made “irresponsible submissions” about Aarogya Setu before the Central Information Commission.

This year, India’s ‘scientific superpower’ aspirations were centered on its pharmaceutical and biomedical research sectors. Sadly, based on what was put on display, the country doesn’t look like it is even on the right path.