Genome #6 How far have we come?
The best way to take control over people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed. — Unknown
The Ministry of Science & Technology, India has approved the inclusion of six private labs in INSACOG. While this is a welcome step (see my arguments in this post), a key criterion that determines their conditional inclusion is that they need to arrange for funds for sequencing on their own (and of course cannot charge the subjects):
Sequencing costs to be met by the private laboratories. Also, charges shall not be levied from the patients
Also, it is not clear if the government would make any funding available (through grants or otherwise).
Meanwhile, INSACOG’s last weekly update was on 10th January 2022 - exactly 69 days ago!
Do we have a National Preparedness Plan?
We are a little over two years into the pandemic, but our planning is driven by the virus. There are press conferences, debates, and all possible talks of overhauling the public health infrastructure just as the wave is about to strike. As the covid-wave subsides, so does the news surrounding it - into the black hole.
The US released a comprehensive 96-page plan document tackling Covid-19. Some of its key focus include:
Better genomic surveillance, wastewater surveillance
Vaccination outreach and education efforts; combat misinformation and disinformation
A one-stop-shop website that allows Americans to easily find public health guidance based on the COVID-19 risk in their local area and access tools to protect themselves
Ensure equitable access to COVID-19 health care and public health resources
Launch a nationwide Test to Treat Initiative so Americans can rapidly access treatment, including by visiting a “one-stop” location to get a free test and free treatment pills
Focus on all these areas is essential for any country to be prepared for any new variants that might arise. This, of course, also requires funding. The Indian government has allocated ₹ 86,201 crores to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in the financial year 2022-23. While this is 16.5% higher when compared to the budget estimates of the previous year (₹ 73,931 crores), it is merely a 0.2% increase given its revised estimates (i.e., how much it ended up spending the previous year) of ₹ 82,920 crores.
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The fact that our policies are driven by surges is very much reflected in how our genomic surveillance program reflects the surge in cases. In December 2021, most parts of the world were witnessing a surge in cases from the Omicron variant. but it was also the first month after almost two years that India ended up submitting more than 5% (see this post for why it matters) of the sequenced samples to GISAID. In fact, during September - December 2021, India’s surveillance saw an increasing trend going from 0.8% to 6% (Figures 1 and 21). On average, this number has oscillated around 1%, often lower at times. This is probably encouraging - but given the lack of any plans from the Government and the lack of updates from INSACOG, it is very difficult to predict if we will keep this trend high or if like everything else, this will also pass into the oblivion of the black hole.