India’s COVID-19 taskforce did not meet in February, March despite surge, say members

22 April 2021
The family of a person who died of COVID-19 perform the last rites amid other burning pyres at a crematorium in Delhi, on 17 April. This year, as India suffered its most calamitous COVID-19 surge, the national scientific taskforce did not meet even once in February and March, according to two of its members.
Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images
The family of a person who died of COVID-19 perform the last rites amid other burning pyres at a crematorium in Delhi, on 17 April. This year, as India suffered its most calamitous COVID-19 surge, the national scientific taskforce did not meet even once in February and March, according to two of its members.
Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images

Even as India suffered its most calamitous surge of the pandemic, the country’s national scientific taskforce on COVID-19, which is supposed to advise the central government on its response to the pandemic, did not meet even once during February and March, according to its members. Two members of the national scientific taskforce, comprising leading scientists from across the country, and another member of a sub-group, which is assisting the task force, have confirmed that they did not meet even once in the two months prior to this explosion of cases in April. This year, they said, the taskforce met on 11 January, and then on 15 April and 21 April, after India was hit by the surge.

“It became abundantly clear in mid February that India was heading towards a devastating second wave,” one member of the national taskforce said. All three scientists spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When things in Maharashtra started going out of hand, some of us tried to flag this issue,” the first member added. The taskforce, however, did not meet during this crucial time.  A second member of the taskforce told me that a meeting of the body was “not convened” unless the government “wanted us to rubber stamp some decision already taken by politicians.”

Another significant lapse, the members told me, the Indian Council of Medical Research’s failure to update the treatment protocol for COVID-19 in the past nine months, since July 2020. As the world updated its treatment with emerging evidence, Indian patients were prescribed remdisivir, which is no longer recommended by the World Health Organization. The health ministry issued its last updated treatment protocol on 3 July 2020, which listed remdesivir as part of “investigational therapies” that would be upgraded “as the situation evolves, and when more data becomes available.”

In November 2020, the WHO published a statement that it “recommends against the use of remdesivir in COVID-19 patients.” The statement noted, “WHO has issued a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir in hospitalized patients, regardless of disease severity, as there is currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients.” But the health ministry’s treatment protocol was not updated, and private hospitals across the nation have continued to prescribe it at exorbitant costs. The ICMR’s failure to update the treatment guidelines in line with global standards have also resulted in a thriving black market for remdesivir that continues to prey on vulnerable families.

As daily cases rose drastically this year, India’s top scientists in the taskforce watched—but did not meet. On 1 February, India recorded 11,427 new cases, which went up to 15,510 cases by 1 March, and to 72,330 new cases by 1 April. On 5 April, India hit its record highest daily rise since the pandemic broke out, with 1,03,558 new cases, which continued to shoot up at alarming rates each day, and nearly tripled to 2,95,041 new cases by 21 April. That day, when India witnessed nearly three hundred thousand new COVID-19 cases, the national scientific taskforce had a meeting on the treatment protocol. Decisions taken in the meeting have not been made public yet.

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter and a Nieman Fellow. Her first book Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History will be published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

Keywords: COVID-19 Bharatiya Janata Party public health West Bengal assembly elections 2021 Kumbh Mela
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