There could not have been a greater need for the voice of science to cut through the noise and disinformation that burst forth during the pandemic. And that visible, global face trying to navigate this intensely combative space, was Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, Dr Soumya Swaminathan.

A familiar presence at the UN health agency’s regular global briefings on Covid-19, Swaminathan’s view from the “hot seat” is captured - with the anxieties and achievements of the pandemic years, in her biography At the Wheel of Research, by Anuradha Mascarenhas.

Although Swaminathan regrets not having kept notes of the early whirlwind days, you get the drift of life in the initial months of the pandemic from her recollection of the time: “a haze now – long days, restless nights, frantic calls, meetings to develop clinical trial protocols and target product profiles, trying to stay on top of all the information and weeding out the good science from the bad, facing media, dealing with frustrations all around including the new mode of remote working, helplessly watching doctors and nurses on the front lines succumb and worrying about family and elderly parents back home in India.”

“Ultimately, it is science that saved us,” she says, crediting the efforts of scientists and healthcare professionals who contributed to bringing out vaccines and diagnostics in short timelines.

Constant backdrop

The biography points to science being a constant backdrop to Swaminathan’s life, as it traces her journey from growing up with her parents Mina and MS Swaminathan, to her “eureka” moment as a teenager that drew her to research, her life at AFMC and eventually to becoming the second woman Director General at the Indian Council of Medical Research (2015).

In fact, her appetite for research comes through her work with tuberculosis, including in the early days of working with people living with HIV (at that point still very stigma-ridden). Her work in institutions in Chennai or Delhi, further reflected her approach to bring solutions tailor-made to the needs of the community, with the potential to be scaled-up – a case in point being her work with malnutrition in children.

There is a bird’s eye view into the public health discussions that Swaminathan has been involved with, including that on the HPV vaccine (that protects against cervical cancer), and the dengue vaccine. The first one she backed, and the second one was blocked, despite pressure from “vested” interests, she recounts.

And just as well, because the dengue vaccine, was seen to have issues in Philippines, leading to its eventual ban. The HPV vaccines, meanwhile, have received the Centre’s backing - although its clinical trials had encountered issues, that were later cleared.

Swaminathan’s observations on encouraging youngsters in research, and navigating stumbling blocks including caste, gender and language biases – are telling and insightful for those facing similar situations in their lives, as well. A “purposeful approach,” is required to deal with this, she says.

Having faced “often all-male meetings”, she understood the struggle it would be to be heard, the biography notes. “If a woman was assertive or aggressive, she would be labelled accordingly.”

Woes of a woman scientist

People tend to ignore a woman scientist – worse, if she is timid and shy. There is a good possibility then she would never get to speak,’ she says.

Besides encouraging young people in research, Swaminathan also points to a concern expressed by several veteran public health voices. “Most secretary-level positions in the government were filled with IAS/IFS/IPS/IFoS officers and it was not surprising to find 70 secretaries from the administrative services attending high-level meetings as against just five or six science secretaries.”

The book outlines how Swaminathan initially turned down an offer to join the WHO, for reasons, including wanting to do more in her country. She did eventually take charge as WHO deputy director-general for programmes (2017) Later, she became WHO’s first Chief Scientist, and within months the pandemic, as we now know it, struck. (December 2019).

The book highlights some innovative developments during the period, including the “living guidelines” concept that updates guidance in-step with a fast evolving science. It touches on some controversies that could have been handled with more clarity – the air-borne mode of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, for example.

There are insights into Swaminathan’s community approach underpinning her science, and on a personal note, her love of music, trekking and animals. The book does not have all the answers on the pandemic and decisions taken then, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it certainly can fuel young people to take up research and participate in serious health-related policy-making, at a national and global level.

Check out the book on Amazon.

About the book
Title: At the Wheel of Research
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 142
Price: ₹599