Senior virologist Shahid Jameel tendered his resignation from the post of the chairman of the scientific advisory group of Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG) after it failed in predicting the gravity of the COVID-19 outbreak in India.
The forum, scientific advisory group of INSACOG, was set up by the central government last year for laboratory and epidemiological surveillance of circulating strains of COVID-19 in the country. Under the group, 10 national laboratories had been brought together under the aegis of the National Centre for Disease Control to study the prevalent strains of the COVID-19 in India.
The move comes as India is grappling with a devastating coronavirus surge, driven by a newer variant of the virus that has left hospital packed to capacity and sick people struggling to get care. Jameel and the group headed by him remained lackadaisical in testing and detecting the active coronavirus strains active even as they surreptitiously spread across the country, causing the latest coronavirus outbreak.
Experts claim India’s coronavirus crisis is powered by a mix of B.1.617 strain and the B.1.1.7 strain, which is popularly known as the UK strain. As a genome mapping group, the INSACOG was responsible for keeping a tab on the strains circulating in the country. However, with the coronavirus cases swelling across the country, the group which was headed by Jameel, had clearly failed in its endeavour of predicting the seriousness of the outbreak.
Jameel blames Centre for his failure to predict the severity of the coronavirus outbreak
Recently, Jameel tried to deflect the blame of his failure to identify the severity of the coronavirus outbreak on the central government. After bungling up the job given to him by the Centre, he penned a scathing piece in the New York Times, in which he had said that the scientists in India are facing a “stubborn response to evidence-based policymaking”.
“Decision-making based on data is yet another casualty, as the pandemic in India has spun out of control,” he wrote.
In his piece, Jameel, who is currently the Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, made suggestions that he should have preferably proposed to the central government as the head of the scientific advisory group of INSACOG. He stressed the need to increase testing and isolation, ramping up hospital beds by creating more temporary facilities, roping in retired doctors and nurses, and strengthening the supply chain for critical medicines and oxygen.
The virologist also emphasised the need to increase the pace of vaccinations. He said India must scale up its vaccination drive, aiming to inoculate 7.5 million to 10 million doses every day. For achieving this feat, he had suggested the centre to augment vaccine supplies and doubling delivery points. Jameel also proposed roping in private sector for enhancing the reach of vaccination.
While all these recommendations should have ideally been made directly to the Centre and not through an opinion column published in a foreign media outlet, it is worth noting that Jameel had earlier downplayed the coronavirus threat facing the country and declared the COVID-19 outbreak over.
Jameel had earlier rejected the possibility of the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak
In an interview in January 2021, while speaking about the coronavirus situation in the country, Jameel had said that he broadly agrees that the worst may be over for the country. “The worst may be over but we are certainly not out of the woods. My advice would be for people to continue to maintain precautions,” Jameel had said in the interview.
When asked if India would have a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, Jameel responded in negative, saying that he does not think that the country will face a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. “India’s first wave was quite broad. The peak was not very sharp. As a result, I think India may not have, what we traditionally call, a second wave,” Jameel said. He hypothesized that about 300-400 million people might have already been infected in India, and therefore the country would be spared by the scourge of the second wave of the coronavirus.
Just a month later, his hypothesis would go down the drain as the number of coronavirus cases in the country registered a steady and sharp uptick, signifying that the second wave was in the offing.
Not only this, the virologist had also raised questions on the emergency approval granted to Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. He had cast aspersions on the trial data of the two vaccines, essentially fueling apprehensions and vaccine hesitancy among people. Regarding Covishield, Jameel said the vaccine threw up conflicting efficacy data from the trail that were conducted in Brazil and the UK. With respect to Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, the virologist said data was not available about its efficacy.
At a time when the genome mapping group should have doubled down on its efforts to track the various strains active in the country and their potential virulence to spawn a second wave of the outbreak, the head of the advisory group, Shahid Jameel, was busy sending wrong messages of reassurance to the scientific community and the broader public, telling them that the worst was behind and that India would not witness another bout of the coronavirus outbreak.
The misleading utterances by Jameel that the COVID-19 outbreak in the country was on the wane, that India would not witness another wave of the pandemic, and that the efficacy of India’s approved vaccines was dubious, underscores his failure to gauge the looming threat posed by the resurgent wave of the coronavirus outbreak. They also served to engender a sense of complacency among the state governments and local administrations, leading them to let their guard down even as the coronavirus was preparing to rear its ugly head, yet again.