As India crosses one million COVID-19 cases and twenty-five thousand deaths, political struggles appear to impair India’s preparedness and response. From 27 June to 5 July, the Delhi government and the National Centre for Disease Control had jointly conducted a serological survey across Delhi, to determine the prevalence of the novel coronavirus in the capital. But the NCDC, which functions under the health ministry and is reviewing the survey data, has not yet released its findings to the Delhi government. On 16 July, the NCDC informed the Delhi High Court that it was still reviewing the data and would take one more week to declare the preliminary results of the survey. But according to three members of a national task force of scientists, which was constituted to advise the central government on its pandemic response, the report has been held up because it is being reviewed by the home ministry.
The three members, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the NCDC had not involved the task force in its survey or examination of the results. Even the Indian Council of Medical Research—the country premier’s medical-research institution, which has been at the forefront of preparing India’s COVID-19 strategy, did not have access to the serological survey. During a press briefing on 15 July, a journalist posed a question about the release of the survey results, and Rajesh Bhushan, an officer on special duty in the health ministry, admitted—perhaps unwittingly—that the report had not yet been shared with the ICMR. “These are complex exercises,” Bhushan responded. “They take time. Delhi serosurvey was finished on July 5. After it’s reviewed internally and shared with ICMR, we’ll share.”
According to one task-force member, Balram Bhargava, the ICMR’s director general, informed him on 11 July that the results were pending clearance from Rajeev Gauba—the cabinet secretary, who reports to the prime minister—and from Preeti Sudan, the health secretary. A second member told me that Sujeet Singh, the NCDC’s director, had said the organisation was awaiting MHA approval. “Our COVID response is now under the home ministry, and so is being implemented as a police intervention and not a health intervention,” the member added. With the spike in coronavirus infections pushing several states back into lockdowns, the Narendra Modi administration appears to have elbowed out the scientists and handed the reins to the ministry of home affairs.
It is unclear why the home ministry would review the results instead of the Delhi government—or the ICMR and the health ministry. Serological tests measure the antibodies produced to resist the virus in the surveyed blood samples, and the survey included a total of 22,823 samples from across Delhi. By determining the prevalence of antibodies against the novel coronavirus, the survey would aid scientists and policy makers to understand the scale of the infection, and the pace at which it is likely to spread. It would highlight the effectiveness of the measures taken to combat the pandemic so far and indicate whether Delhi’s residents remain susceptible to infection. It is critical information that would form the bedrock of a strategy to prepare and fight against COVID-19. “We have been asking the NCDC to share this data with us so we can take informed decisions,” a Delhi government official, who is familiar with the case told me on the condition of anonymity.
The three members of the task force said they did not have any information about the study design, which would explain how nearly twenty-three thousand residents of Delhi were selected for the survey. They said that they learnt of the survey from news reports. One member said that the task force had met in the third week of June, but it was neither discussed during the meeting nor listed in its agenda.