Manipal Academy of Higher Education denies ICMR’s charges over Nipah research

Several expressed surprise over how a project could function since 2014 if there were so many loopholes.

Published: 14th February 2020 06:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th February 2020 11:10 AM   |  A+A-

Nipah virus

MIV sent daily updates about its work on the Nipah virus to the agencies concerned via email. (File photo | EPS)

Express News Service

BENGALURU: The medical community is seeing red over the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)'s removal of the Manipal Institute of Virology from a central list of virus research and diagnostic labs (VRDL) on grounds that it was "under qualified" and allegations that the private lab stored Nipah virus samples in 'secrecy'.

It was the first ICMR-VRDL funded by ICMR and made operational in 2010.

Several researchers took to Twitter demanding flaying the government for its treatment of MIV. Some suspected a professional vendetta as the MIV, formerly called the Manipal Centre for Virus Research, assisted the Kerala government with research on the Nipah virus in 2018.

"Why is the government defaming the lab when all guidelines were followed, the ministry kept in the loop and several papers published about the research findings? That too after almost two years?" asked a senior researcher on condition of anonymity.

Several expressed surprise over how a project could function since 2014 if there were so many loopholes.

"Unfortunately, this has led to the closure of the very critical acute fever surveillance project, which helped diagnose hundreds of cases of the mystery fever, allowing treatment of these patients," a tweet read. 

All procedures followed In a detailed response to the ICMR, a copy of which is with TNIE, the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) strongly denied the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s (MoHFW) allegations that the laboratory was "under-qualified" and was storing Nipah virus samples without being equipped to do so.

MAHE said that the MIV had assisted the Kerala government with detection and lab testing of the Nipah virus outbreak building on expertise accummulated from its study on fevers called the Acute Febrile Illness (AFI) project. The project was funded by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), an arm of the USA government, since 2014.

The purpose of the study was to understand the causes of acute fevers requiring hospitalization, which could inform public health policy in India.

"As part of this collaboration, MIV's diagnostic capacity was significantly expanded. As part of the AFI study, 41,008 samples were tested between June 2014 and September 2018. They found that only half of the AFI cases could be diagnosed with available tests and 80 per cent of the diagnosable cases were attributed to influenza, dengue, leptospirosis, scrub typhus, malaria and Kyasanur Forest Disease," the statement said.

When the Additional Director of Public Health in Kerala requested the MIV to test samples of encephalitis cases from Kozhikode district in May 2018, MIV detected the Nipah virus. The information was relayed to the ICMR director general over phone and SMS.

The lab subsequently provided diagnostic support and outbreak investigation with financial support from ICMR and worked with NCDC, MoHFW, GoI.

"It was also conveyed that, for confirmation, the samples will be send to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune by hand. Subsequently, Director of NIV and the Kerala state authorities were informed. On the evening of May 20, NIV confirmed our findings and the Nipah virus outbreak was officially declared," the statement said.

Arunkumar G, the virologist who headed MIV’s fever project, told TNIE that the health ministry and ICMR had been closely involved in reviewing the fever project and nothing was done in 'secrecy.'

"In fact, the AFI surveillance project was reviewed every quarter by a committee co-chaired by the Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) and the Director-General of ICMR, MoHFW, GoI. Any CDC scientist visiting Manipal was required to take prior approval from the ministry," the statement read.

MIV sent daily updates about its work on the Nipah virus to the agencies concerned via email.

However, Dr Arunkumar clarified that it was on the request of the Health Minister of Kerala, the MIV team joined the state public health services in Kozhikode to provide support.

Interestingly, later the ICMR asked the MIV to stop testing and send all the samples to NIV Pune. It was sent on July 12, 2018.

“This claim is totally weird,” Arunkumar said. “The CDC was only involved in training us to detect the Nipah virus along with others as part of the capacity building. They had nothing to do with the outbreak
investigation, during which we only worked with ICMR, NCDC and the National Institute of Virology (an ICMR body) and the Kerala government.”

Attempts to obtain a response from the ICMR were in vain.

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