Third Covid wave: India may not be doing adequate genome sequencing to identify threats quickly

So far, genome sequencing of only about 15,000 samples across India has been carried out while experts say that considering India’s population, this number should have been at least 1 lakh.

Published: 05th June 2021 06:33 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th June 2021 06:33 PM   |  A+A-

People, ignoring social distancing norms, gather at a market to buy essential items, amid a COVID-induced lockdown, in Patna, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

For representational purposes

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: India may still not be doing enough genome sequencing of SARS-CoV2 samples necessary to stay ahead of the virus and predict third Covid wave in time, feel experts.

So far, genome sequencing of only about 15,000 samples across India has been carried out while experts say that considering India’s population, this number should have been at least 1 lakh if not more.

It also grossly falls short of the target set up by the Centre in December-January to test 5 % of all positive samples in every state as part of its INSACOG initiative, which is a consortium of several institutions under the National Centre for Disease Control to carry out an extensive genomic surveillance  of Covid virus in India.

This exercise, feel experts, is particularly necessary after it emerged that a new variant B.1.617, first detected in Maharashtra in India, which is highly transmissible had been driving the second wave of the pandemic apart from B117, a variant first identified in the UK.

These two variants were different from the SARS-CoV2 strains prevalent in the first wave of the pandemic and have prompted many scientists to hypothesise that later waves of the infectious disease could be caused by new variants, which need to be identified quickly in order to make necessary public health interventions.

“Considering India’s size, we ought to be sequencing more, around 1 lakh,” former ICMR director general NK Ganguly told The New Indian Express. “Currently we have sequenced 15,000 samples, which is very less. The more density of genome sequencing we can increase, the more information we can get, and we have to do this smartly.”

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He advised that India should make repository in which samples from various parts of the country can be genome sequenced

Virander Singh Chauhan of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, who put together a report called 'The Road Ahead for Smart Covid Testing and Tracing in India', said  the country was able to identify new variants including the B.1.167 and its sub lineages and the spread of UK variant, but will need extensive sequencing for better surveillance and map the spread of mutant.

Experts also feel that just identifying emerging variants may not be enough, unless there is a mechanism to translate data from sequencing into public health measures to effectively protect populations before it is too late.

Manisha Bhinge, managing director, programs, health initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation stressed that an enabling culture of broad and diverse testing along with accelerated and methodical genomic sequencing and data integration will be essential to monitor variants of concern and assess effectiveness of countermeasure technologies.

“This will take us a step closer to having early warning systems to pre-empt potential outbreaks,” she said.

Many scientists associated with labs that are part of the INSACOG project however told this newspaper that fund crunch has been a major issue with the initiative, forcing the labs to manage the programme from their own scant resources, apart from little support from the department of biotechnology. 


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