Known as a visionary scientist, an eminent Rhodes Scholar and having been the former Chairman of the University Grants Commission (2017), Dr Virander Singh Chauhan is renowned for his research contributions in the field of malaria vaccine development and biological application of synthetic peptides. Speaking exclusively to The Financial Express Online’s Swapna Raghu Sanand, he says, “At the outset, we must note that governmental and scientific collaboration has been excellent in India, especially for the development of new testing systems. In India—as well as internationally—the scientific community has embraced collaboration.”
Dr. Virander Singh Chauhan is currently the chairman of the EC of NAAC and involved in the scholarship schemes such as the Rhodes, Inlaks and Felix Scholarships for Indian students. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012 in recognition of his scientific and human resource development work. Currently he serves as an emeritus professor at the ICGEB, where he had earlier served as director of the institute spanning 1998 to 2014.
In your experience, how has India fared so far in its testing and tracing strategy effectiveness?
Respecting all the limitations of a diverse, complex nation, India has done reasonably well, even when compared to some high-income countries. In the beginning, India had hardly any facilities. These were rapidly developed as the response to the pandemic was ramped up. Local production soared, and a lot of material required for testing is now being produced in India. What needs to be appreciated is the speed with which we acted to fill in the gaps. It is inevitable that some states have done well, and some could’ve done better, but we should consider this as a learning experience to be better prepared for any future pandemics that may come our way.
Now that research and development is producing new kinds of high-quality testing platforms (such as CRISPR) that increase accessibility, we have to keep evolving and strengthening our testing strategy to make it more targeted and effective so that it dovetails effectively into the vaccine strategy of India.
What are your thoughts on ICMR’s evolving testing guidelines for COVID-19?
Given the problem as it sprang out, the unprecedented nature of the situation and the various resource limitations, the ICMR has done a reasonable job. However, a few areas that could have shown improvement are the dissemination of quality information, better data gathering and sharing, and putting forth a coherent strategy on how to deal with it.
In your opinion, what are the tools and insights needed for scientists and epidemiologists to contain the pandemic, but are currently lacking in India?
There is a growing need for accurate reporting on COVID-19 data. Today, it is possible to consume large datasets, but right now we lack quality data collection and sharing systems. There is an urgent need for a centralized reporting system for the COVID-19 data that is coming in. Add to this the variable data coming in from every state, and the data management and analysis truly suffers. Epidemiologists require quality surveillance systems, and good quality serological testing and data on exposure. In the absence of a centralised system, data remains scattered, and policymaking suffers.
How can the government and scientific community work together to ensure better and more equitable access to COVID-19 testing, especially in rural India?
At the outset, we must note that governmental and scientific collaboration has been excellent in India, especially for the development of new testing systems. In India—as well as internationally—the scientific community has embraced collaboration. This collaboration between international and national institutes was coupled with immense governmental support, which meant that India has been able to produce many tests locally. It is only a matter of time before we start scaling up test production even further. When it comes to equity, this scale up will eventually lead to a fall in prices which should contribute to the equitable access to COVID-19 testing. As we move forward, all these dynamic changes need to reflect in our testing strategy, so we ensure that the efforts are channelized towards the best suited outcomes.
Many experts are talking about lack of accurate data regarding COVID-19 management in India? What are your views on it?
Our medical system is inherently complex, which has meant that data collection and sharing has been difficult between states. Other countries with large populations have also suffered with data gathering, but India—with its digital prowess—could have made a better effort towards data collection and sharing. This data should be made accessible to researchers, policymakers and the common man. Even if the data shows that the management of COVID-19 could have been better, we shouldn’t shy away from our faults. It is true that there will be criticism, but it is also true that good quality data will lead to better policy outcomes.
As a scientist who has been involved with vaccine developments in the past, what are your thoughts on vaccines for COVID-19?
Never in the history of any disease in the world have vaccines been developed with such speed. This is because our situation comes at a unique point in history: we have data on SARS-1 (a genetic cousin of COVID-19) which made us familiar, we have new vaccine platforms that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and there is governmental as well as international support for scientific collaboration. Due to these factors, we now have over 100 vaccines worldwide, of which many have gone through phase 1 trials. It won’t be long before vaccines are available for use. Additionally, once mass production begins, the vaccines will become increasingly affordable. The availability of a vaccine does not, however, mean that we can stop taking precautions. That would be foolishness. We must continue to test and isolate, and follow the general protocols of hand hygiene, using masks and social distancing.