With India fighting what increasingly looks like a losing battle against a second wave of COVID-19 cases, over 500 scientists have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a "systematic collection and timely release" of data about the pandemic, which would enable "data-driven mitigation measures".
In an open appeal to the PM, the scientists put forth five demands and write that with India being one of the worst-affected countries by the pandemic – the country officially reported over four lakh fresh infections this morning – the situation "demands rapid and systematic data collection, reporting and release".
"While new pandemics can have unpredictable features, our inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community" their appeal said.
Elaborating on their five demands, the scientists, associated with institutions of note across the country, said that the situation required large-scale genomic testing to check for newer variants of the virus, better testing and data for predicting the spread of the infection, data on outcomes of hospitalised patients and the immune response to vaccination.
They demanded access to granular testing data with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), a database which has been "inaccessible to anyone outside of the government and perhaps also to many within the government. Most scientists – including several identified by DST and NITI Aayog to develop new prediction models for India – do not have access to these data."
The scientists reasoned that public health measures in a country like India should "necessarily" vary from an area to another due to a greater "geographical variability in patterns of spread" of the infection, resulting in the need for access to " granular epidemiological data available with ICMR."
They wrote that access to clinical data with measures of privacy for patients is "required for analysis and predictions, and for estimation of the requirements for oxygen, medical supplies, ventilators, ICU beds, etc. Many scientists have been trying to get data on comorbidities and blood analysis of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, without success."
The scientists also requested the government for funding to organisations which collect data based on genome-sequencing of the virus and that this be released in the public domain. "The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), established for genomic surveillance, is only sequencing the coronavirus from about 1% of infected individuals. Increase of sequencing volume and simultaneous collection of clinical data from the infected individuals are crucial to understanding whether a mutated virus is more virulent," they said.
The group also asked for an expansion of the network of organisations who were collecting data on the immune responses to COVID-19 and the vaccine. It said that the 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' policy has resulted in the imports of scientific equipment and reagents an "extremely tedious and time-consuming process....This has reduced our ability to scale up testing by developing new testing platforms and has impaired our ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance rapidly and accurately."
They mentioned that such "restrictions" would only hinder the country's ability to counter COVID-19 and requested their withdrawal.
"It is essential now, more than ever before, that dynamic public health plans be implemented on the basis of scientific data to arrest the spread of infections and save the lives of our citizens," the appeal said.
India's daily COVID-19 tally crossed the grim milestone of four lakh this morning, while the death toll rose to 2,11,853 with 3,523 fresh fatalities, according to data updated by the Union Health Ministry on Saturday.