At least 100 scientists petition PM Modi for better access to ICMR’s data bank

‘ICMR database is inaccessible to anyone outside of the government and perhaps also to many within the government’

At least 100 Indian scientists, several of them biologists and specialists in disease modelling and genome sequencing from some of India’s leading research institutions, have petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to coax the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to improve access to its data bank.

“The ICMR database is inaccessible to anyone outside of the government and perhaps also to many within the government. Most scientists — including several identified by Department of Science and Technology and NITI Aayog to develop new prediction models for India — do not have access to these data,” their petition noted.

As India grapples a fearsome second wave of the pandemic with over 350,000 new cases being added every day, questions have been raised on whether the government and its scientists were blindsided.

The petitioners rued that the government’s policies on Atmanirbhar Bharat had made importing scientific equipment and reagents “an extremely tedious and time-consuming process” requiring approval at the level of the Secretaries of Ministries or Departments. “This has reduced scientists’ abilities to scale up testing by developing new testing platforms and has impaired our ability to sequence viral genomes for surveillance rapidly and accurately…Such restrictions, at this time, only serve to impede our ability to deal with COVID-19. We request the withdrawal of these restrictions,” their petition said.

For accurately forecasting and gauging outbreaks, it was necessary to have access to clinical data that in turn would help with estimating requirements for oxygen, medical supplies, ventilators and ICU beds. “Many scientists have been trying to get data on comorbidities and blood analysis of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, without success,” the letter noted.

The signatories include the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences; senior scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and the National Centre for Biological Sciences; and the Ashoka University. However, the petition does not mention the scientists’ institutional affiliations.

The scientists say that without adequately funding and widening the network of organisations to collect large-scale surveillance data based on genome-sequencing of the coronavirus and releasing this data rapidly in the public domain, it would be difficult to efficiently manage COVID-19.

By way of example, the authors cited the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), established for genomic surveillance, and said it was only sequencing the coronavirus from about 1% of infected individuals. More sequencing and simultaneous collection of clinical data from infected individuals was crucial to understanding whether a mutated virus is more virulent. “These data should be released in real time to the scientific community for analysis and inference,” the letter said.

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