Reporting for this story was supported by a journalism grant from the Thakur Family Foundation, which has not influenced the contents of this report.
Indian researchers say they urgently need better access to data collected by government agencies to help them understand and fight the country’s devastating second pandemic wave. An open letter published on 29 April that has 740 signatories so far asks the government for access to databases on COVID-19 testing and genomic sequencing and urges it to remove other obstacles to research.
“There are currently so many hurdles and so much paperwork around accessing these data,” says Partha Pratim Majumder, a genetic epidemiologist at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in West Bengal and one of letter’s signers.
The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, K. VijayRaghavan, released a note the next day acknowledging the problems and promising to increase access. “Our broader research community needs to be much more facilitated by our research agencies,” the letter said. But some scientists are skeptical that the situation will improve quickly; the note was low on details and previous requests for data from government agencies have often gone unanswered, they say. Why the Indian government is so reticent to share data is unclear.
The government has collected detailed data on some aspects of the pandemic. For example, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s top medical research agency, captures demographic details such as age, location, and health status of everyone who submits a sample for a COVID-19 test. The data could help answer key questions, such as whether people with certain concurrent illnesses are more likely to have worse outcomes and whether vaccines are working, says Gagandeep Kang, a public health microbiologist at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, who also signed the letter. “Lots of people want to know, for instance, what mortality is by location, and whether it differs between rural and urban areas,” she says. “This speaks to the kind of care people are getting.”
But so far, scientists say, ICMR and other government agencies have dragged their feet on responding to requests for access. That has forced several groups building computer models of the epidemic to rely on public domain data, which are aggregated by state but lack granular details such as breakdowns by district, age, or gender, says L. S. Shashidhara, a developmental biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. Even modeling groups advising the Indian government on its COVID-19 response policy often don’t have these data, Shashidhara says.
Scientists also want access to more viral genome sequences generated by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG). Established in December 2020, the consortium’s stated goal is to sequence 5% of all new SARS-CoV-2 cases in the country, which is important to keep up with the spread of new virus variants. INSACOG has had a slow start, with just over 15,000 samples sequenced by late April, out of about 5.9 million new cases India has seen since January. And just 6200 sequences—fewer than half—have been deposited in GISAID, an international database, during this period.
In February, INSACOG identified a variant, later christened B.1.617, which was growing in frequency in Maharashtra at a time when that state was experiencing a massive outbreak. B.1.617 has spread to several other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. But INSACOG has yet to share its analyses of whether the variant is more transmissible or more virulent. “We need multiple pairs of eyes need to look at this data, instead of just one,” Majumder says.
The authors also ask the government to remove obstacles that prevent INSACOG from stepping up the sequencing pace. INSACOG scientists currently have to jump through several bureaucratic hoops to import reagents, plastics, and other key materials. The measures, designed to protect Indian industry, are ill-advised during the coronavirus surge, says Rakesh Mishra, a genomicist at Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of 10 INSACOG labs. “It’s like taking a blanket away from a person in winter because the blanket is imported,” he says.
The note released by VijayRaghavan’s office says government agencies “will immediately highlight mechanisms of research access to already available datasets and put in place access to new datasets as they are formed.” It also says the government will remove import bottlenecks and INSACOG will involve more teams in data analysis, bioinformatics, and decision-making.
Although some scientists welcomed the quick response, others say the letter is too little, too late. “The note only says that government agencies will facilitate data access,” Majumder says. “The question is: when? Time is of the essence. And promises made in the past by important government functionaries have often not been fulfilled on time.”