Soumya Swaminathan, the first Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization, will leave the UN health agency this week.

Over the last couple of years, Dr Swaminathan has been a familiar face at the regular international media briefings held by the WHO to guide on Covid-19 and other global outbreaks including Monkeypox and Ebola.

But it was literally baptism by fire for the Chief Scientist with her appointment coming in March 2019, just months before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak that brought the world to a standstill.

In WHO’s own words, “the pandemic is the biggest public health threat in a century, and certainly the most challenging one yet”.

Covid-19 origin

On December 30, 2019, the WHO’s country office in China picked up a statement from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan.

From being a “pneumonia of unknown cause”, on January 30, 2020, the WHO Chief declared the Covid-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the agency’s highest level of alarm.

And from then on, the WHO has been actively working with governments to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. And its advise involving, for instance, the vaccines that got approved, the medicines and diagnostics that became part of the treatment guidelines, or were dropped from it (living guidelines, as they were called) — came in for intense public and scientific scrutiny, and criticism.

Top team member

Dr Swaminathan has been part of the top team explaining WHO’s actions, and some of them have involved her home-country India. The Chief Scientist’s professionalism in handling issues has earned her the respect of colleagues.

In fact, several India-centric issues have hit centre-stage during the peak of the pandemic — be it the emergency approvals for Bharat Biotech’s Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin, or the pause on vaccine exports from Serum Institute during the Delta wave in India.

Ensuring new vaccines from India

She has been even-handed in her handling of issues, said a virologist familiar with the requirements of international operations. In a conversation with businessline, Dr Swaminathan stressed the need to ensure new vaccines being developed in India to meet international benchmarks for global acceptability.

In setting up the science division and Dr Swaminathan’s vision, the WHO said it was to ensure that WHO was at the forefront of science, able to translate new knowledge into meaningful impacts on people’s health.

When Dr Swaminathan returns to India next month, she will certainly look to bring more of this international expertise into local health programmes.