Tracking the enemy

Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

Coronavirus and DNA, virus mutation. New variant and strain of SARS CoV 2. Microscopic view. 3D rendering | Photo Credit: Gilnature

India’s genome sequencing project needs to pick up pace, so that new variants can be anticipated

India’s SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence programme is moving forward at a languid pace. In December 2020, India decided to form a consortium of ten laboratories which would collect 5 per cent of the positive cases and decode the genome. The launch of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) was, rather inexplicably, delayed — a good nine months after the disease-breezed across India’s borders. Other countries started earlier — for example, the US formed a similar consortium as early as May 2020. Genome sequencing, or reading what genetic material the virus is made up of, is important mainly from the perspective of catching the mutants early enough — in a way, it is like knowing what new weapons the enemy is arming himself with. A modelling study, funded by a California-based biotechnology company called Illumina, whose findings were revealed in a medRxiv preprint (non peer-reviewed paper) showed that sequencing 5 per cent of the positive cases would be enough to detect new variants. The number has become a global benchmark. To meet the 5 per cent target, India should have by now sequenced 1.25 lakh samples, or at least one lakh, if you ignore the early cases. Against this, by the first week of May, INSACOG members had sequenced “about 20,000”.

The best argument that one might advance here is that the other countries haven’t fared much better. Only the UK and Japan have crossed the 5 per cent mark; others are just about where India is, including the US, which started much earlier. But this argument does not help anyone. The issues are the same all over — funding and collection of samples from healthcare providers who test patients for Covid-19 infections. In India, the ₹70 crore allocated to INSACOG (against the promised ₹100 crore) is by an order of magnitude less than what the other countries are spending on the sequencing. But funding does not appear to be a deal-breaker in India.

A bigger issue, as elsewhere, seems to be procuring 5 per cent of the positive cases from healthcare providers. For these clinics, already bushwhacked by growing workload, the additional task of collecting samples of 5 per cent of the positive cases, in a truly random way, preserving them and transporting them to the nearest INSACOG lab appears to be daunting. However, the job has got to be done to prevent thousands of deaths. It is truly disconcerting to learn that in times as dreadful as these red-tapism is still rampant. Insiders say that labs are unable to import crucial items needed for sequencing because of the Atmanirbhar Bharat rule that says that for purchases under ₹200 crore, you shall buy locally. This issue should be sorted out. India has a responsibility to ramp up sequencing and share the genomes with the global genome repository, GISAID, for, who knows, a variant that escapes undetected might trigger yet another wave.

Published on May 30, 2021
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