In the first week of February, the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, a government initiative under the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control, recorded in its weekly report that India had reported its first three positive cases of COVID-19. The IDSP tracks the spread of diseases in India and publishes a weekly report of outbreaks on its website. For over a decade, the IDSP has diligently published a report every week of the year about the outbreak of diseases in India. But inexplicably, the agency best equipped and with most expertise to track and survey the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in India, has not published a single report since 2 February, when it recorded India’s first COVID-19 cases.
“This was the whole point of setting up the organisation,” an expert in global public-health told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They’ve been preparing for a pandemic like this all their lives. Now the pandemic is upon us, where is NCDC? Across the world, CDCs are leading pandemic response, but in India, the response is led by the ICMR, with the NCDC being invisible when it is most needed.” Three months into the fight against COVID-19, multiple epidemiologists and public-health experts, including one senior official from the Indian Council of Medical Research, said that the NCDC was neither sharing data with the ICMR, nor regularly attending pandemic-response meetings.
The IDSP was launched in November 2004, with funding from the World Bank, a year after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. It was set up under India’s NCDC with the specific mandate of tracking diseases, and has established surveillance units at the central, state and district levels. The initiative’s weekly reports are critical for surveilling of outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, dengue et cetera in real time. As stated on its website, the IDSP seeks to “monitor disease trends and to detect and respond to outbreaks in early rising phase through trained Rapid Response Teams.”
The novel coronavirus pandemic is not just the NCDC’s gravest test, but in fact its raison d’être. Broadly speaking, the health ministry gets its data from two major sources: the IDSP, which has the larger data set, comprising information gathered from contact-tracing operations, quarantine centres, and airports; and the ICMR which gets testing data from laboratories. But since 2 February, the IDSP has not disclosed its data.
According to my interviews with at least three scientists and epidemiologists involved with the government’s pandemic response, the issue of the IDSP withholding data was raised at a meeting that included Harsh Vardhan, the union health minister. On 27 March, Vardhan had constituted a “High Level Committee” to review the COVID-19 situation in India. The committee held its first meeting four days later. According to the scientists and epidemiologists privy to the events that transpired during the meeting, when the attendees raised the issue, Vardhan refused to make the data public. They told me that Vardhan claimed he had “in-house experts.” He did not explain why in-house experts precluded the NCDC from sharing the data.