Modi’s Doctors

How four men botched India’s COVID response

ILLUSTRATION BY GRAPAZO
Elections 2024
01 March, 2022

On 25 December 2020, the ministry of science and technology set up INSACOG, a pan-India network of laboratories to monitor genomic variations of SARS-CoV-2. The government had identified ten advanced laboratories to serve as “regional hubs” for genome sequencing—to keep an eye on the strains of the coronavirus circulating in India. Dr Shahid Jameel, India’s leading virologist, was appointed as chair of this consortium of laboratories.

“By that time, we had very little idea of what was circulating in India, how it was mutating,” a scientist involved with the INSACOG labs told me.

A sophisticated channel of communication was laid out: samples would come from state health departments to the National Centre for Disease Control in Delhi. The NCDC would forward the samples to the regional labs. Each lab was assigned certain states to cover. The samples would be sequenced, and the information generated would be uploaded to a portal accessible to all INSACOG labs and updated weekly. The reports would go back to the NCDC, and from there to state health departments, informing them what had been found in the samples they sent.

“Essentially, this was the information pipeline,” the INSACOG scientist said. “It had never been done before. And it was working reasonably well.” Scientists spent between four and six weeks setting up the structure. “But the government insisted that the flow in and flow out—especially the flow out—of information go through health ministry.” The scientists found this odd because they were working for the department of biotechnology, or DBT, which falls under the ministry of science and technology, not the health ministry.