Senior officials pressured scientists in September 2020 to downplay the threat of a second Covid-19 wave to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goals of kick-starting the economy and win the Assembly elections, especially in West Bengal.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) reviewed and published the report, ‘Modelling the spread of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic - Impact of lockdowns & interventions’, which had concluded that the earlier infections and the strict lockdowns had slowed down the spreads of the virus.
After the first wave slowed down, Indians had dropped their guard and thronged malls, restaurants and places of worship without wearing masks and social distancing. The result was the outbreak of the Delta variant, which, coupled with a crippled health system, killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The study was conducted by Manindra Agrawal, professor, IIT-Kanpur; Madhuri Kanitkar, deputy chief, integrated defence staff; and M Vidyasagar, professor, IIT-Hyderabad, was formed to chart the trajectory of Covid-19. However, current and former government researchers and documents reviewed by The New York Times (NYT) say that the scientists downplayed the threat.
Dr Anup Agarwal of the ICMR, which reviewed the report, according to the NYT, was “worried that its conclusions would lull the country into a false sense of security”. When he approached ICMR director general Balram Bhargava with their concerns in October, he was told it was “none of his business” and reprimanded.
“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” Agarwal told the NYT. Senior ICMR officials “suppressed data showing the risks”, according to the researchers and the documents. In fact, the officials forced scientists to withdraw another study that questioned the government’s efforts into question and “distanced” the ICMR “from a third study that foresaw a second wave”.
In May, the National Covid-19 Supermodel Committee admitted that it could not predict the exact nature of the second wave and that the model predictions were incorrect. The committee too consisted of the three same scientists.
“We have been working on a mathematical model to predict the spread of the virus. It is important to note that a mathematical model can only predict future with some certainty so long as virus dynamics and its transmissibility don’t change substantially over time,” the panel had said. Admitting that the “nature of the virus has been changing very rapidly”, it said: “In such a context, any prediction for Covid-19 must be continually readjusted, sometimes almost daily.”
ICMR scientists told the NYT there is a “culture of silence” in the organisation with midlevel researchers worried that questioning their superiors would kill their chances of promotion.
“Science thrives in an environment where you can openly question evidence and discuss it dispassionately and objectively,” Shahid Jameel, one of the country’s top virologists and a former government adviser who has been critical of the ICMR told NYT. “That, sadly, at so many levels, has been missing,” he added.
The ICMR refused to answer detailed questions asked by the NYT and the health ministry did not respond to requests for a comment.